Character Win
by Matt Michael - Wednesday, December 4th, 2013
Orange football squad refused to concede defeat against Boston College

The Nov. 30 game ended, and about 80 or so young men with blue jerseys and orange pants started jumping, screaming and running around the Carrier Dome turf like second-graders at an Easter egg hunt.

It had been a long time since the Syracuse University football team had a party like that at the Dome.

In the moment, the players were celebrating the Orange’s come-from-behind 34-31 win over Boston College that 1. enabled the team’s 19 seniors to win their final game at the Dome; and 2. evened SU’s record at 6-6 and made the Orange bowl-eligible for the third time in four years.

But there’s a lot more to it than that. The players were also celebrating a season in which they overcame adversity at every turn, a season that could have easily ended with excuses instead of euphoria.

“We’ll never, ever, ever give up,” SU coach Scott Shafer said after the BC game. “Never.”

The Orange needed every ounce of that attitude this season, which started ominously in early January when head coach Doug Marrone left for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and took half of SU’s assistant coaches with him. Shafer, the defensive coordinator under Marrone, was named to replace Marrone Jan. 9, and he had to scramble to put together his coaching staff.

The Orange lost several key players from the 2012 team that finished 8-5 with a win over West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl. Quarterback Ryan Nassib, offensive tackle Justin Pugh and safety Shamarko Thomas–who are all in the NFL–were among the 10 starters that Shafer had to replace as SU left the Big East Conference for the more competitive Atlantic Coast Conference.

Injuries throughout the season eroded SU’s depth and forced Shafer and his coaches to mix and match and adjust on the fly. For example: Sophomore safety Durell Eskridge was used as a wide receiver in SU’s last two games, and he caught a 20-yard pass from quarterback Terrel Hunt in the second quarter of the BC game to keep alive a drive that ended in a touchdown.

And the Orange got knocked to the ground several times this season, losing 48-27 at Northwestern, 49-14 to Clemson at the Dome, 56-0 at Georgia Tech and 59-3 at Florida State. On Nov. 23, with a chance to become bowl-eligible with a win against Pittsburgh at the Dome, the Orange fell 17-16 in a way that was much worse than any of their blowout losses.

But through it all, the Orange kept “fighting the good fight,” as Shafer said, and found a way to finish 6-6 (4-4 in the ACC) with a chance to play in a bowl game. The Syracuse New Times went to print before it was announced if SU would be one of the 11 bowl-eligible ACC teams invited to a bowl.

“Our creed has always been character wins out,” Shafer said. “We’ll never give up. And I don’t care if it was Florida State, where we got our butts kicked, or Clemson, when we let ourselves down. Most importantly, our kids never quit and they come back the next week and they’re resilient.”

SU’s season appeared to end with about three minutes left in the BC game. With SU trailing 28-27, Hunt threw an interception that Eagles linebacker Steele Divitto returned to the SU 22-yard line.

On the next play, BC running back Myles Willis, who replaced injured Heisman Trophy candidate Andre Williams early in the third quarter, ran 17 yards to the SU 5 with 2 minutes, 37 seconds remaining. At that point, SU could have allowed BC to score so it had more time to drive for what would have to be a game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion.

“Someone said, ‘Would you ever just let them score so you have more time on the clock?’” Shafer said. “Hell no, we’re not doing that. What kind of message does that send to the kids? This isn’t the NFL, this is college football. Fight the good fight the right way with integrity, and you find a way to win the game.”

After a false start penalty against BC moved the ball back to the 10, the Orange defense stuffed Willis for no gain. Willis then gained three yards before the Eagles inexplicably threw a short out pattern that gained only three yards and stopped the clock when tight end Mike Naples was pushed out of bounds. Since the Orange had used all of its timeouts, BC’s inability to stay in bounds gave SU the extra time it needed to score.

Kicker Nate Freese’s 21-yard field goal gave the Eagles a 31-27 lead, and the Orange started its game-winning drive at its own 25 with 2:08 remaining.

“I didn’t even look at the clock. That’s the crazy thing,” Hunt said. “Just keep moving; I wasn’t even thinking of the time or that we were down. That pick was kind of messing with me, but {backup quarterback} Charley {Loeb} and a bunch of other guys said, ‘We’re going to win this for you.’ Just keep playing.”

Hunt completed a 15-yard pass to redshirt freshman tight end Josh Parris, who was playing because starter Beckett Wales was injured. Another redshirt freshman, wide receiver Alvin Cornelius, caught a seven-yard pass. Hunt ran for eight more yards, and a pass interference penalty against the Eagles moved the ball to the BC 33-yard line with 1:03 left.

This is where Lady Luck met Never Give Up.

Hunt scrambled for about eight yards before losing the football, which was recovered by senior center Macky MacPherson, the grandson of legendary SU coach Dick MacPherson. Had the Eagles recovered, the game would have been over.

Instead, the Orange moved the ball to the 8 on Hunt’s 3-yard run and 14-yard pass to Cornelius. With 12 seconds remaining, Hunt sprinted right to bait the defense and then lofted a throwback pass to the left side of the field to Parris, who rambled in for the game-winning touchdown.

“The thing that’s so fulfilling, there’s nothing better than when you look into a kid’s eyes and they don’t give up, even when a lot of the people around them have,” Shafer said. “It stays true to the philosophical point of view that we have, which is build character first and then they’ll go play football for you.”

The party started after Parris crossed the goal line, with Shafer getting a Gatorade shower and the SU players jumping for joy. When SU’s Robert Welsh recovered a BC fumble on the Eagles’ last-ditch desperation play, the Orange players erupted to celebrate the win over a season’s worth of adversity.

“We don’t give up. We don’t let anyone push us down,” senior defensive tackle Jay Bromley said. “We want to instill in the rest of this team for the future that Syracuse, whatever you say about them, will never give up on anything. They are going to be a hard team to face every time you face them. We’ll have our bad days, but you better be prepared for our best.”