Syracuse University football coach Scott Shafer says he looks for three things in his quarterback.
Can he command the huddle? Can he avoid turnovers? And, only after he has mastered the first two, can he make big plays?
Through true freshman quarterback Eric Dungey’s first two games, the answers are yes, yes and yes, which is why the Orange is 2-0 despite losing starting quarterback Terrel Hunt to a season-ending injury in the first quarter of the Sept. 4 opening game.
“He does some things that are hard to coach, so in good time as we just keep leaning him forward, he’ll be a very good quarterback,” Shafer said after SU defeated Wake Forest 30-17 Saturday, Sept. 12, at the Carrier Dome. “But we have to play great defense and we have to be able to run that ball and create big plays to help him in his growth.”
In SU’s opener, a 47-0 whitewash of overmatched Rhode Island, Dungey completed 10 of 17 pass attempts for 114 yards and two touchdowns. Dungey earned the backup job late in training camp and won over his teammates as soon as he replaced Hunt.
“He came in (against Rhode Island), he was confident, he wasn’t nervous,” said sophomore wide receiver Steve Ishmael. “Eric coming in and having that much confidence really boosted up the team. I feel like he’s taken the team under control and we’re looking up to him.”
Command of the huddle? Check.
Against Wake Forest in SU’s first Atlantic Coast Conference game of the season, Dungey faced adversity for the first time. The Demon Deacons played a different front on defense than they had shown on film, the Orange had trouble converting on third down and in the red zone, star hybrid back Erv Phillips was out because of a knee injury, and the Orange trailed 17-13 at halftime.
Offensive coordinator Tim Lester said miscommunication between Dungey and his receivers led to some of the first-half mistakes, such as a Dungey pass that sailed about 15 yards over the nearest SU receiver.
“We were all like, ‘Who’s he throwing to?’ and he was saying the same thing himself when he came off,” Shafer said. “So he had some freshman moments. It’s going to happen, and thank God they didn’t hurt us.”
Despite his shaky first half, Dungey didn’t turn the ball and, thanks to an Orange defensive stand at the end of the first half that limited Wake Forest to a field goal, SU trailed by only four at the half.
Avoid costly turnovers? Check.
But to win the game, Dungey had to make plays and that’s what he did on two consecutive series in the third and fourth quarters. Late in the third, on first down from the Syracuse 11-yard line, Dungey dodged a blitz, scrambled to his right and sidearmed a pass to wideout Brisly Estime at about the SU 45-yard line, and the speedy Estime completed the 89-yard touchdown play. It was the third-longest touchdown pass in Syracuse history, and the longest since Donovan McNabb and Quinton Spotwood hooked up for a 94-yard score against East Carolina in 1997.
On SU’s next possession, Dungey connected with Ishmael along the sideline for a 53-yard touchdown pass that boosted the Orange’s lead to 27-17. Dungey then flashed his athleticism and nearly scored his own touchdown on an 11-yard scramble late in the game, but the officials ruled that he didn’t cross the goal line and the Orange settled for kicker Cole Murphy’s third field goal of the game to make it 30-17.
Make big plays? Check.
“It was kind of fun to watch right there,” Shafer said. “That little sidearm sling down the middle to Brisly, that’s the guy that we recruited, and then he almost got in with that athletic (run) at the end there.”
The biggest challenges are yet to come, as the likes of LSU, Florida State and Clemson loom on SU’s schedule. But heading into the Saturday, Sept. 19, 12:30 p.m., non-conference game against Central Michigan at the Dome, the Orange players appear to have Dungey’s back as they see the same things that Shafer is seeing.
“The guys do a great job of keeping me up, (saying) ‘We got this,’’’ Dungey said. “It’s nice to have them picking me up. I was just trying to keep a level head, keep my composure and do the best I can.”