The future looked as bright as ever six weeks ago. The Syracuse University football team had just beaten West Virginia 49-23 in front of the biggest Carrier Dome crowd in two seasons. Its best player, defensive end Chandler Jones, had just returned from a knee injury. All three units—offense, defense and special teams–—played as well as they had at any time on head coach Doug Marrone’s watch.
But something changed between then and now, because that would be the last happy moment on the field for SU. Off the field, it wasn’t much better.
Safety Phillip Thomas, the team’s emotional leader, was suspended for the season after violating team rules three weeks ago. Starting cornerback Keon Lyn stayed home for the Orange’s final game, last Saturday, Dec. 3, at Pittsburgh, because of “conduct detrimental to the team.” You could say the rest of the players followed suit. Six turnovers in the final game could also qualify as “conduct detrimental to the team.”
Throughout the last six weeks, Marrone has harped on mental toughness. Players and coaches alluded to dissension on the team. Sources close to the situation say that players had to be separated in the locker room following one of the home losses. The way it went sour so quickly has to leave fans wondering what happened.
Maybe it was that game immediately following West Virginia. To that point, SU was 5-2, and its only two losses were easily explained. Southern California had the top talent in the country. Rutgers had taken advantage of SU shooting itself in the foot multiple times. But the Orange was riding high into that Louisville game against an average team, and they got their butts kicked.
Getting dominated by a Cardinals team that had lost to Florida Atlantic and Marshall shouldn’t feel good, but in this case it destroyed the team’s morale. You could feel the tension in every game thereafter— folding in the fourth against Connecticut, getting dominated by South Florida, losing to Cincinnati’s backup quarterback in the Carrier Dome, and finally running out of steam against Pitt on the last gasp.
The most amazing part is that it seemed like they finally figured it out at some point in the Pittsburgh game, which the Panthers won 33-20. They got punched in the mouth early, looked like they were ready to roll over and die, and then suddenly started making plays. Saturday was probably as tough as the Orange had battled all season, even with the dumb penalties and turnovers.
Maybe they realized that all they needed was one win to keep playing and save the season. Maybe they were inspired by old grumpy guys complaining about how they don’t deserve to keep playing, and that there are too many bowl games if Syracuse gets in. Whatever the case, they were too late. They finished the season 5-7 with five straight losses.
In the end, it may not cost them. All of these teams that just beat them will be spinning in their football graves if they remain in the Big East. SU is just killing time until they are reborn in a new conference. It’s a good thing, because this season ended like the ones under Greg Robinson’s watch. o
Chris McManus is a 2010 graduate of Syracuse University. He is the program director at ESPN Radio 97.7 and 100.1 FM, where he hosts Disturbing the Peace weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m.