Syracuse seniors focused on leaving as winners
Regardless of what happens next week in the Texas Bowl against Minnesota, Scott Shafer's first season as head coach at Syracuse has turned out OK.
Playing in the postseason is a nice reward, especially considering the hand Shafer was dealt as the Orange prepared to leave the Big East to play their first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Coach Doug Marrone abruptly resigned last January, taking most of his staff with him to the NFL's Buffalo Bills. Syracuse still managed to finish .500 and earn a bid to the Texas Bowl in Houston to face Minnesota.
''It's a business trip, a business trip with benefits,'' said Shafer, who also had to replace record-setting quarterback Ryan Nassib and the stability he lent to the program. ''There are so many fronts that are conducive to take the program in a positive step forward when you're playing in a bowl. It's like an extra spring practice to some degree.''
Like every other coach in America, Shafer also is thinking about next year, using the extra practice time to evaluate players who didn't see much action during the regular season. ''With us playing on the 27th, we won't have as many opportunities, but it's still opportunities,'' Shafer said. ''And just the fact that people are talking about Syracuse during December on the holidays is advantageous to our recruiting front. The chance to be on national TV and play two days after Christmas, all those recruits that we've been working hard to try to get will get a chance to watch our product.''
Syracuse (6-6, 4-4 ACC) began the season with losses to Penn State (23-17) and Northwestern (48-27) and closed it with a tough 17-16 loss to Pittsburgh, compliments of a blocked extra point, and a scintillating 34-31 victory over longtime rival Boston College. A couple of plays here and there and the Orange are sporting a much more impressive record as they prepare for the Golden Gophers (8-4).
Still, Syracuse finished behind only No. 1 Florida State, who will play Auburn for the national championship, and Orange Bowl-bound No. 12 Clemson in the ACC's Atlantic Division.
''I thought it was an adequate season,'' Shafer said. ''If we would have won eight, I would have said it was an outstanding season considering where we were. We lost a lot of good players and a lot of good coaches. We really had to start all over. I knew it was going to be a great challenge. At the end of the day, the bar is set high. For our kids to have finished behind those two teams, I thought it was a definite positive as we move into the second year of the ACC.''
The extra time has been a boon for the seniors, who were instrumental in helping the team in an important transition year and are anxious to go out on a winning note. Syracuse has won the Pinstripe Bowl twice in the past three years, so what would be sort of a three-peat in their minds is the goal.
''It's just good to have that little bit of time,'' said senior defensive tackle Jay Bromley, who had a team-leading nine sacks among his 12.5 tackles for loss. ''(If) we get out of this season with a 7-6 record, we'd have one losing season under my belt in four years. It would be a real good accomplishment. I just want to leave this university a winner just like I came here.''
As for next season, safety Durell Eskridge and tailback Jerome Smith are expected to return, and that's a big deal.
As a sophomore, Eskridge earned All-ACC third-team honors with 78 tackles, 52 of them solo, and four interceptions. A receiver in high school, Eskridge also was inserted in the lineup on offense the final two games and had a key 19-yard catch on a third-and-10 play to help set up a touchdown against Boston College. Smith leads the team with 840 yards rushing and 12 TDs, all but one of those scores on the ground.