In sports, not all wins and losses are created equal. In other words, there can be “bad” wins and “good” losses.Remember the Syracuse University football team’s 27-26 win over Villanova in the 2014 season opener at the Carrier Dome? Sure, that was an exciting game, but the Orange needed two overtimes, a trick play in the second overtime, and a botched 25-yard field goal attempt by the Wildcats with 12 seconds left in regulation to defeat a supposedly inferior FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) team.
Peel back the onion on that Villanova game and you’ll see many of the reasons why SU stumbled to a 3-9 record last season.
Now, in the “good” loss category, you’ve got SU’s 34-24 loss to No. 8 Louisiana State University before 43,101 fans at the Dome on Saturday, Sept. 26. Down to their fourth-string quarterback, the Orange gave the big, bad Tigers and their 8,000 raucous fans all they could handle as LSU led only 7-3 at the half, 17-10 late in the third quarter, and 24-17 with 12 minutes left in the game.
With one of the largest Dome crowds in recent years pulling for an undermanned SU team that kept taking hits and getting back up, perhaps we’ll look back at this game as the one in which Syracuse football rediscovered its mojo.
“I was telling everybody who walked in (the SU locker room) with their chins down a little bit, keep your heads up, this might be the best team I’ve ever been a part of,” said Orange senior offensive lineman Rob Trudo. “We just gave LSU a run for its money.”
For this game, at least, the primary difference between the two teams was that LSU had sophomore running back Leonard Fournette on its side. Fournette rushed for 244 yards on 26 carries with two touchdowns, and he had an 87-yard touchdown run wiped out because of a penalty. With 635 yards rushing and eight touchdowns against Mississippi State, Auburn and Syracuse, Fournette is the early leader for the Heisman Trophy and an NFL star in the making.
Not that Syracuse doesn’t have talented running backs, but put Fournette on Syracuse Saturday and the Orange might win by 10.
“We can see we can hang with any team now,” said SU sophomore safety Antwan Cordy, who had a monster game with eight tackles (two and a half for losses), a sack and a pass breakup. “I feel like we’ve got more confidence now that LSU only beat us by 10 points. I feel like we can handle any team now moving forward.”
LSU was a 24-point favorite entering the game, and for good reason. The week before, the Tigers dismantled No. 18 Auburn, 45-21, as Fournette rushed for 228 yards and three touchdowns. LSU, which hails from the hallowed Southeastern Conference, also had the longest non-conference regular-season winning streak in Football Bowl Subdivision history at 49 (now 50).
On the other side, the Orange was going to start a quarterback, Zack Mahoney, who was listed fourth on the depth chart at the start of the season (and would have been fifth, if AJ Long was healthy). Starter Terrel Hunt is out for the season with a torn Achilles, backup Eric Dungey was out after suffering a concussion in the Sept. 19 win over Central Michigan, and Orange coach Scott Shafer decided to start Mahoney against LSU over No. 3 Austin Wilson because he thought Mahoney’s mobility would play better against the Tigers’ fast defense.
It didn’t seem like the right move in the first half, when a jittery Mahoney completed just five of 13 passes for 35 yards and the Orange managed only three first downs and three points (although kicker Cole Murphy, who earlier nailed a 43-yard field goal, hit the right crossbar with a 31-yard attempt as time expired in the first half).
But in the second half, Mahoney calmed down and completed 11 of 25 passes with three touchdowns: a 40-yarder to Brisly Estime, a two-yarder to Ben Lewis and a five-yarder to Dontae Strickland. He also gained all 40 of his rushing yards in the second half and that ended up leading the team.
“I feel like I played OK. Not nearly as well as I can and should,” Mahoney said. “I missed a lot of open throws in the beginning. I felt like as the game went on, I progressed with a lot of things. I’m just hoping I can improve every day.”
That’s exactly what Mahoney should say and how he should feel. But let’s not forget that Mahoney, a junior college transfer and a walk-on, and his teammates played well enough to put a scare into the eighth-ranked team in the country. Mahoney’s last start was last season for the College of DuPage (about 25 miles west of Chicago) against the Lindenwood-Belleville University junior varsity team.
Again … that’s a Junior. College. Transfer. Walk-on.
“He’s just always positive,” said SU wide receiver Steve Ishmael said of Mahoney. “That’s one thing I love about him, he don’t ever put his head down. He’s the same person and he doesn’t change.”
It’s likely Dungey will return as the starter Oct. 10, when the Orange resume play at the University of South Florida after a bye week. It’ll be SU’s first road game after opening the season with four consecutive home games for the first time since 1935.
At 3-1 with three winnable games (at USF and Virginia, at home vs. Pittsburgh) before facing a Florida State-Louisville-Clemson gauntlet, the Orange could very well use the LSU loss as a springboard to a bowl game and, just maybe, a long-awaited revival of the program.
“It’s bittersweet. I’m still mad that we lost because I really wanted to win,” Ishmael said. “But you know, we’re 3-1 right now and we just want to continue winning. I feel like we can win a lot more games after this.”