A generation of Syracuse University football fans awaits the return of glory days
Syracuse went undefeated in 1987, the year I was born. My first vivid memory of football in the Carrier Dome is Donovan McNabb leading a lastminute touchdown drive to beat Virginia Tech in 1998. That team hung 70 points on Rutgers, 66 on Miami, 63 on Cincinnati, and 38 on Michigan. It was video game offense. The Orangemen were known around the country as an offense that could light you up, and it had been that way for more than a decade. At one point in the 1990s, Steve Spurrier said he’d never bring his University of Florida team to the Carrier Dome again. But that year of my first Carrier Dome memory was the last trace of national relevance.
We saw video game offense in the stretch that followed, but all the points went in the visitor column. Over the next 10 years, Syracuse lost 24 games by at least 24 points. Non-competitive. When you lose like that, the whole team stinks, but offensive futility was the staple. 2004 began with a 51-0 loss to Purdue.
In 2005, Syracuse averaged 13 points per game (fifth-worst in the nation). In 2006, SU blew a chance to win the home opener, failing to punch it in at the goal line for eight straight plays (yes, that scenario exists). In the 2007 opener, Coach Greg Robinson trusted his offense so much that he punted on third down (30-point loss). In 2008, The Express premiered and SU dedicated a statue of Ernie Davis, but the whole weekend was capped by a 55-13 loss to once bitter rival Penn State.
Some of you might remember Michael Owens running in a two-point conversion to preserve the undefeated season, but my generation remembers only these travesties (for those who still paid attention). By the time I enrolled at SU in 2006, students and young people literally stopped going. The energy from the 1980s and 1990s in “The Loud House” is a completely foreign concept to an entire generation. All we’ve seen is miserable offensive lines blocking for incompetent quarterbacks throwing to slow receivers. Fans younger than 25 years old have seen the dullest brand of losing football.
Then Doug Marrone changed the culture and put a winner on the field. Last season was nothing short of miraculous. Not to take anything away from that team, but the offense was far from explosive. They did just enough to take care of the ball and let the defense win the game. That formula worked, so God bless, but I don’t think it hooked the younger generation the way the late 1980s did.
This season, Syracuse is dangerously close to something that resembles a legitimate offense and an exciting brand of football. The Orange returns eight starters on that side, and the other three all played significant roles last year. The coaching staff could not have put the quarterback in a better position to succeed. In his first season, Ryan Nassib sat behind Greg Paulus and learned some leadership skills while Paulus spent most of the games running for his life. In his second season, Nassib was asked to limit his mistakes and lean on the running game as he got acclimated with the system and the position. Entering his third season, offensive coordinator Nathanial Hackett says he knows the offense inside and out. Nassib hasn’t heard a peep of public criticism from the coaching staff through camp. I’m telling you, they think this offense can be really good.
There are at least three primetime games in the Carrier Dome this year, starting with Wake Forest on Thursday, Aug. 31. Marrone says the goal is to compete for a Big East Championship. If all goes according to plan, the lost generation of SU football fans just might hop on board in 2011. t Chris McManus is a 2010 graduate of Syracuse University. He is the program director at ESPN Radio 97.7 and 100.1, where he hosts Disturbing the Peace weekdays from 3 to 6 pm.