Syracuse’s Dino Babers gets signature win, and puts North Carolina in enviable spot
They stormed the Carrier Dome, carrying Eric Dungey off in celebration, and given what North Carolina accomplished Saturday afternoon in Miami, Syracuse's fans may as well take him the entire way to Chapel Hill.
Dungey's 417 yards and two touchdowns carried the Orange to a 31-17 upset of No. 17 Virginia Tech, a win that will serve as a signature victory for first-year coach Dino Babers.
But it's the impact it has on the Coastal Division race that puts the Tar Heels in an enviable spot.
North Carolina, which fell to the Hokies by 31 points last weekend, entered the day trailing Justin Fuente's crew by a game in the division. Behind Mitch Trubisky's two TD passes, though, the Heels knocked off No. 16 Miami 20-13 on the road.
North Carolina now sits atop the Coastal, a half game up on both Virginia Tech and Pitt. After three straight ranked opponents — No. 12 Florida State, the Hokies and Hurricanes — the Tar Heels now enter a more manageable portion of their schedule, with just one opponent in NC State (4-2) that has less than three losses.
Meanwhile, the two teams behind them — the Panthers and Hokies — play each other Oct. 27, and before that meeting, Pitt still has to take on Miami.
Having lost to Virginia Tech, North Carolina still needs to win out and have the Hokies suffer another loss to return to the conference title game. But considering the road ahead for Fuente and Co., the Tar Heels have to feel good about the position they're in.
All of that, thanks to the Orange.
The tangible results of what Babers had been able to accomplish at Syracuse had largely been about the statistics.
Progress had been measured in a 150-yard uptick a game in offense in the coach's up-tempo scheme, a positive sign amid four losses in the last five games.
Now, though, the Orange coach is responsible for the program's first win over a ranked opponent since joining the ACC, and snapped a 12-game skid overall vs. Top 25 teams.
A return to the postseason, where Syracuse hasn't been since 2013, still seems a long shot. There is only one remaining game — next weekend vs. Boston College — where the Orange may be favored. They also have to deal with No. 3 Clemson, and No. 14 Florida State, plus, the surprising Wolfpack and 5-2 Pitt.
Against a Hokies defense that ranked second nationally and first in the ACC against the pass (132.2 yards per game and 661 in all), the Orange racked up 405.
That kind of an output, and Fuente seemingly had an edge having first-hand experience vs. Babers when they battled last season when Fuente's Memphis team beat Babers and Bowl Green 44-41.
But maybe the most stunning aspect of the Orange's eruption was the glimpse of their wide receiver depth. Amba Etta-Tawo, who is averaging an FBS-best 146 yards per game, had just 54 and zero TDs on five catches, giving way for Erv Phillips to have a team-high 11 receptions for 139 yards, while Brisly Estime had eight for 131 yards and Steve Ishmael had six catches for 81 yards.
Given the problems Syracuse's offense can cause for opponents, it seemed a given they would give someone on that difficult remaining schedule fits.
The Orange did more than that, and in the process gave the Tar Heels just the opening they needed in their bid to defend the Coastal crown.
Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His book, 'Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,' is out now, and 'The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners' will be released Nov. 22, 2016.