Donovan McNabb shows up for Syracuse football's encouraging loss

The star of Syracuse football past visits the Carrier Dome for the first time since graduation.

Many years have passed since the sounds of possibility and admiration swirled amid the Syracuse football fans exiting the Carrier Dome.

More amazing, this Saturday these sounds were after a loss.  The pre-season hype generated by the of hiring new head coach Doug Marrone even prompted former quarterback Donovan McNabb to return to his alma mater for the first time since departing for the NFL in 1999.  Hear what Super Five had to say.

The University of Minnesota (1-0) stole a win Saturday afternoon when junior kicker Eric Ellestad converted a 35-yard field goal in the first overtime session, giving the visiting Gophers to a 23-20 victory in front of 48, 617 fans.

“I take my hat off [to the crowd],” Marrone said.  “But at the end of the day, we need to make plays.”

The one play, in particular, that needed to be made was a third-and-4 at the Minnesota five-yard line.  The new Syracuse signal-caller (dubbed The Duece by Halftime Snack) was flushed out of the pocket, and rolling towards the left sideline through a prayer into a sea of white Gopher jerseys littering the end zone.  Minnesota junior linebacker Nate Triplett came down with the interception, ending the lone Syracuse possession in the extra period.

“We weren’t going for conservative,” The Duece said afterwards.  Conservative in that situation would have led to a field goal attempt – strong move based on the first looks at Syracuse freshman kicker Ryan Lichtenstein (2-2 with field goals from 23 and 42 yards).

The atmosphere on the Hill was vibrant, even with the early kick-off (television wanted a noon start). Orange lacrosse players turned the volume up on Euclid Avenue, the trumpet section of the SU marching band tuned up beside Bowne Hall and the Quad was turned into an orange tent city.

Inside the Dome, the alma mater “Song of Syracuse” was sung with vigor, the student section sported “The Devil Wears Orange” shirts (I’ll let you figure that one out) and the Orange mascot was carried in like an Arabian prince.

The emotions bubbled over on the first possession of the game:  the Syracuse sideline suffered miscommunication, the offense got out on the field late and on the first play, junior center Jim McKenzie snapped the ball twenty feet in the air. 

“I’ve never seen anything like [the start of the game],” said Marrone.  “There were lots of issues on that first play and I take full responsibility [for that].”

The Gophers pounced on the loose ball, recovering on the Syracuse 16-yard line.  Minnesota took the gift and running back Duane Bennett scampered around the right side for the opening score. 

“Here we go, again,” thought the 4th-largest home opening crowd in Dome history.

The Orange refused to live in the past, exhibiting a bad short-term memory: kick returner Mike Jones bolted up the sideline for a 79-yard return on the ensuing kickoff and SU freshman Ryan Lichtenstein converted a 23-yard field goal with 1:40 left in the first quarter.  The Orange crowd was alive.

“We feed off that energy,” Syracuse defensive tackle Arthur Jones said. 

The Gophers’ second possession also started in SU territory and the visitors knocked on the doorstep after a 38-yard reception by All-Big Ten receiver Eric Decker.   The Orange defense held, batting down a third-down attempt in the end zone, but a false start by the Minnesota line blew the play dead.  The Gophers used the second life to tally its second touchdown of the afternoon—a 7-yard reception on a slant pattern by all-purpose threat Todd Stoudemire.

Coach Marrone hid his best offensive weapon, senior receiver Mike Williams, until late in the first quarter.  The Orange looked for Williams down the middle of the field on the third play of the drive, but a Minnesota triple-team thwarted the attempt.  SU came back with play action three plays later, and Williams was alone in the end zone after the Gopher defender fell down on the fake.  The reception extended Williams’ touchdown streak to 10 consecutive games—a Syracuse record. 

A strong running game amplified the new “Stallion” formation employed by the Orange offense. Tailback Delone Carter returned to the form of his freshman campaign, taking direct snaps and using cutback lanes to the tune of a game-high 90 yards on 23 carries.

Trailing 14-13 mid-way through the second quarter, the Orange sensed Minnesota was turning up pressure and executed a pair of screens, one to halfback Antwon Bailey and the other to Williams, driving deep into Gopher territory.  Carter peeled off a 16-yard scamper to the left side, just missing the end zone.  The Orange called the next play without a huddle and Carter leaped high over the pile for his first touchdown of the season.

The Orange marched into the locker room with the lead (20-14), the loud crowd and an off-balance Gopher squad across the way.

Syracuse (0-1) came out a different squad in the second half, failing to score the rest of the way.  The offense got a bad case of the drops and began committing drive-killing penalties.  Special teams saw its star, punter Rob Long, shank a kick off the side of his foot, basically handing the Gophers three points (Ellestad would convert a 26-yard try after one Minnesota long run and a Syracuse penalty). 

The Orange defensive unit played inspired football in the second half, getting a boost on third down from faithful while limiting the Gophers to just one productive drive.

“No one could hear down there,” Arthur Jones explained following the game.  “My ears are still hurting.”

For nearly 55 minutes the noise in the Dome and the can’t-lose attitude of the Orange defense kept the Minnesota offense in check (20 of the Gopher points came when their offense started on the Syracuse side of the field). 

Minnesota made an adjustment on its last drive, going no-huddle with a steady diet of quick slants and crossing routes to post a 14-play, 73-yard drive culminating in the tying field goal by Ellestad with 57 seconds remaining.

The Orange continues its three-game Big Ten mini-series on Saturday in Happy Valley.  Nothing happy will meet Syracuse, most of all being defending Big Ten champ Penn State.

When the Orange return to the Dome two weeks from now, Arthur Jones wants the same atmosphere to greet the team.

“Keep it going every weekend; don’t give up on us.”


PLAY OF GAME:  Syracuse special teams blocked a Gopher field goal attempt that would have tied the game at 8:54.  Credit for the tip was given to defensive tackle Anthony Perkins.  Perkins dropped his shoulder to create an angle, finding room to stick paw up in the air to deflect the ball.  Assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Bob Casullo has the players believing, mostly by example:  “Be professional, do your job.  Everyone has a job to do.”

BIG TEN OVERTIME:  The last time the Orange played and lost in overtime was also against a Big Ten opponent:  Syracuse fell 20-13 to Iowa in the Dome on Sept. 9, 2006.

BEST DRESSED:  The Orange players were dressed to the nines during the postgame, a direct reflection of the coaching staff.  Lichtenstein (hot pink) and Arthur Jones (bright orange) displayed color with well-fitted black suits—red carpet material for sure.

PLAYER OF GAME:  Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker 9 catches, 183 yards.  Decker is big, fast over overmatched one, and at times, two Orange defensive backs on Saturday.  Decker moved into third place all-time at Minnesota for receiving yards with 2,544—Ron Johnson (1998-2001) holds the record with 2,989 yards.

FORGET HALFTIME SNACK:  Orange failed to score in the second half, posting a 1-for-12 on third down for the game.  Some credit is due to Minnesota, dropping more defenders into throwing lanes once the Duece started to scramble.  

IT’S HOT IN HERE: The Dome is an oven, a fact not missed on first-timers in the press box.  “Y’all need some air conditioning in here,” said McNabb.  Luckily there are fans to circulate air and plenty of ice to cool the fountain soda down.  Kudos to Sue Edson and the SU Athletic Communications staff on a well-run press box—announcements, statistics and cake come quickly.  

Good coverage. Of cource I'm

Good coverage. Of cource I'm partial towards the author.

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