I’ve been covering football for nearly a half-century and watching it for even longer and can honestly say I’ve seen few fourth quarters more bizarre than the one I witnessed from the upper deck of the JMA Wireless Dome on the campus of Syracuse University Saturday afternoon.
It was absolutely bonkers – exhilarating and exhausting. The final 15 minutes of action between the Orange and visiting Purdue featured six touchdowns, four lead changes, a pick-six by a defensive lineman and a slew of unsportsmanlike penalties by the Boilermakers that resulted in them kicking off from their own 10-yard-line and SU later kicking off from the Purdue 35.
Fittingly, it was capped by a frenetic finish, with gritty Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader tossing a game-winning 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Oronde Gadsden II with seven seconds remaining to give the Orange a 32-29 victory that kept them undefeated.
Syracuse coach Dino Babers has always been what we in the newspaper business call “good copy.” And he didn’t disappoint in his post-game press conference Saturday, deftly invoking a metaphor with the Colossus, a famous California amusement park roller coaster that claims to be among the world’s fastest.
“There were turns, deep valleys, there were big climbs,’’ Babers said. “There was a lot of speed going on. Your hair was going back. Your eyes were all big. You were like, ‘Wow is this thing going to end?’ because I’m not really having a lot of fun right now. Luckily, it finally came to an end and everything was intact and Syracuse is 3-0.”
Undefeated, and dreaming big.
“It’s a good time to be Orange,’’ Babers added.
He’s got that right. A season that began with tepid expectations and plenty of apathy is feeling like it might blossom into something special. Perhaps ’Cuse fans will be partying like it’s 2018; that’s the last time SU opened with three wins, on its way to a 10-3 record that included a bowl victory and a No.15 national ranking in the final college football polls. That remains the only winning season by Babers, now in his seventh year at Syracuse, and it was sparked by a similar gutsy, dual-threat quarterback — a school record-setter by the name of Eric Dungey. Shrader appears to be cut from a similar cloth. He may not be quite as prolific a passer as Dungey was, but he’s proven to be a more elusive runner. And, like Dungey, he’s as tough as those steel girders supporting the Dome’s massive roof.
By his own admission, Shrader did not play well during the first 30 minutes Saturday, completing just four-of-nine passes for a paltry 35 yards as SU mustered just three points. He often seemed reluctant to pull the trigger, and took off after seeing his first receiver covered, rather than looking for alternative targets. “I don’t think I could have played a worse first half,’’ Shrader said. “I credit our lack of success to me not making plays and not doing what I was supposed to do, for whatever reason. But we were able to overcome that.”
Shrader definitely redeemed himself in the second half with 153 passing yards and three touchdown tosses, including the aforementioned game-winner. “That’s called leadership,” Babers said. “And I’ll follow that all day long.”
The affable coach loves the young man’s moxie, and I do, too. Through three games, under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Robert Anae and quarterbacks coach Jason Beck, Shrader has greatly improved his accuracy, upping his completion percentage from 52 to 66 percent. He has thrown for 709 yards – roughly half of what he managed in 12 games last season. The Charlotte, N.C. native also has thrown eight touchdown passes and has yet to be picked off. He is the first Syracuse quarterback with multiple touchdown passes and zero interceptions in four straight games since Orange QB gold standard-bearer Donovan McNabb in 1998.
Shrader continues to be a dangerous runner with 201 yards rushing and three touchdowns. But he’s also carried the ball 46 times and has taken quite a pounding. There were two scary moments in the second quarter that caused one to take pause. On one play, Shrader was flipped while being tackled, and his head bounced awkwardly off the turf. On another play, he lay on the field for an anxious minute or two, before heading to the sidelines. Fortunately, he returned the next series, but you have to wonder if this kind of running workload is sustainable, even for a guy listed at 6-foot4, 227 pounds.
Babers clearly would like to get star running back Sean Tucker going and have him do much more of the ball carrying. So far, Tucker’s been bottled up by opposing defenses. Despite stats not approximating last season’s when he shattered the school record for rushing yards in a season, Tucker continues to be the guy who makes the Orange offense go because the extra attention he attracts opens things up for others, especially Shrader.
The Dome was loud and raucous Saturday. The only disappointing thing was the size of the crowd. It was announced at 35,493, though it looked to me to be closer to 30,000, with plenty of empty spaces in a stadium that holds 49,000. Apparently, a lot of people still aren’t sold. And that’s too bad because this team appears to be not only legitimately good, but immensely entertaining. Perhaps more people will jump on the fan wagon for Friday night’s nationally televised matchup up with Virginia in the Dome. It will be another opportunity for Babers’ team to show that it’s a great time to be Orange.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.