SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The Syracuse football team that lost to the Gophers 17-10 last year at TCF Bank Stadium bears little resemblance to the one they will face in the Texas Bowl on Friday in Houston.
A new coach. A new quarterback. A new offense. A secondary turned inside out because of injury, and a rocky kicking game.
The lone constant in Syracuse’s first Atlantic Coast Conference season has been its defensive front seven — its backbone. That’s the group Gophers fans should be most worried about.
“We feel like we owe ’em one from last year,” defensive tackle Jay Bromley said. “One they won fair and square. We just want to get it back.”
Led by three returning starters in Bromley and linebackers Marquis Spruill and Dyshawn Davis, the Orange run-stoppers pose the same stout challenge they did last year, when the Gophers managed only 2.6 yards per carry, gaining 106 yards on 41 attempts in their Sept. 22 victory. This season, Syracuse was the only team in the nation to not allow a 100-yard rusher, and it has especially thrived against power-rushing offenses.
The Orange held opponents to 138.3 rushing yards per game, and most recently limited Boston College Heisman Trophy candidate Andre Williams to 29 yards on nine carries before he left because of an injury.
“I believe in penetration. Penetration kills offenses,” Bromley said after Syracuse’s victory over Boston College. “As a defense, we took that personally and went out there to do a job and got the job done.”
That was the theme through most of the season.
When sophomore quarterback Terrel Hunt failed to throw for a touchdown in the Orange’s first six ACC games, Bromley and Co. held North Carolina State, Wake Forest and Maryland to a combined 13 points in Syracuse’s three conference victories.
And when the Orange faced Boston College in a do-or-die regular-season finale, it was that same group that shut down Williams.
Spruill, who has reshaped his image after being charged with disorderly conduct and second-degree harassment a year ago, has emerged as a captain of the defense, but Davis and first-year starting outside linebacker Cameron Lynch consistently have found paths into the backfield.
“Those three kids are good linebackers,” Syracuse coach Scott Shafer said, “especially when they’re playing next to one another.”
Defensive tackle Eric Crume lines up next to Bromley, who ranks fifth in the ACC in forced fumbles and seventh in sacks, while first-year starting defensive ends Micah Robinson and Robert Welsh round out the unit.
It’s one that has showed few blemishes this season as the Orange also ranks fourth in the conference in opponents’ third-down percentage and sacks.
But if there is a weakness in the group, it’s defending against speed. The Orange held Northwestern to 206 rushing yards in its second game of the season before being trampled by Georgia Tech’s triple option for 394 yards on the ground.
However, it was that embarrassing 56-0 loss to the Yellow Jackets on Oct. 19 that helped turn around Syracuse’s season. Players and coaches agreed the loss was so embarrassing that it resonated with the team.
The Orange responded by beating Wake Forest and Maryland the next two games.
“I was really proud that our kids, they stuck their chest out, they went to work after that difficult loss,” said Shafer, who was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach after Doug Marrone was hired by the Buffalo Bills in January. “There’s been no separation with these kids. They’ve become tighter when we’ve had tough situations, and I love them for it.”
Now the front seven will look to cap a strong season against the Gophers in Houston. And with Syracuse missing its two best defensive backs because of injury in No. 1 cornerback Keon Lyn and leading tackler and strong safety Durell Eskridge, the unit carries more weight than ever this season.
“We’ve got to make sure we stop the run,” Bromley said. “They’re one of the best running teams in the country. So we just have to buckle down on defense and our offense will get something rolling.”
Shafer said David Cobb and the Gophers running game present a challenge. But it’s a challenge that plays toward Syracuse’s strengths.
Whether or not the Orange offense does get something rolling, the front seven can be expected to give the Gophers offense trouble, as it did last year.
Last year, it wasn’t enough. This year, the Orange is out for revenge.
Said Spruill: “It gives us a little more to play for. We owe ’em one.”