SU starts 2-0 for first time since 1999

The Orange start slow once again, but survive visiting Rhode Island to stay undefeated.

It wasn’t pretty, but SU’s football team held off the potential upset bid by the Rhode Island Rams with a pair of clutch interceptions by safety Phillip Thomas and a career day from quarterback Ryan Nassib. After the game, head coach Doug Marrone expressed frustration in the mistakes “pretty much everyone” on his team made, but still stressed the importance of the bigger picture.

Photo: Theodore Rysz
Shamarko Thomas tackles Rhode Island's Travis Hurd during Syracuse's 21-14 win on Saturday.

“We’re not good enough not to enjoy a victory,” he said in the postgame press conference. “If you’re hanging your head after you win a game, you aren’t going to be in this business very long.”

After a down-to-the-wire, overtime victory against Wake Forest last week, many predicted SU to walk over a Colonial Athletic Association foe like the Rams. But the Orange found itself in a tight game, eking out a victory, 21-14. Expecting to see a one-sided affair, the Carrier Dome crowd instead witnessed the Orange struggle to find any consistency on offense or defense Saturday.

Syracuse dominated the first quarter, though. Nassib recovered after throwing an interception, his second on the season, to throw 22-yard strike to wide receiver Van Chew, giving SU the early lead, 7-0.

Nassib finished the day with 29 completions, tying a school record, and 318 yards in the year. Marrone was equally diplomatic on his senior quarterback.

“He did some good things.” Marrone said. “But there are probably some things he’d like to have back.”

While the offense rolled, the defense halted everything the Rams threw their way. Despite being without starting defensive end Chandler Jones, who recovered from an injury suffered last week against Wake, the defense held Rhode Island mostly to their side of the field for the game’s first 15 minutes.

While the Orange defense confounded the Rams in the first quarter, Rhode Island quarterback Steve Probst and their hurry-up offense had SU's number by the second. The Syracuse defense left Probst little time to get set in the pocket, but the senior used his mobility to exploit the pressure, scrambling for two first downs. Travis Hurd capped off the drive with a 26-yard run, tying the game, 7-7.  

Defensive end Mikhail Marinovich said the defense realized early on that they needed to contain Probst.

“He’s a good quarterback, he would check down the field and look, and say ‘oh I don’t have anything, screw it I’m taking off,” Marinovich said of Probst. “ He did a great job of that, then we started realizing let’s play unselfishly and let’s contain this guy and lets work as proven in the past.” 

Perhaps bolstered by Rhode Island’s showing, the Orange came out with a very effective hurry-up offense of its own on the ensuing drive. Nassib connected with Chew on a 62 yard pass and then Alec Lemon for a 4-yard touchdown in a quick, 1:22 drive.  

Undeterred, URI drove back down the field into scoring position, but missed a 45-yard field goal. Rhode Island charged back into scoring position after a quick SU possession, but Phillip Thomas pulled in the first of two interceptions on the night to keep the lead heading into halftime.

The team returned lifeless and sloppy in the third quarter. Meanwhile, URI’s offense looked the opposite. They marched down the field on their first possession, aided by two 15-yard penalties taken by Syracuse. The drive culminated in an acrobatic, diving touchdown catch by Anthony Baskerville in the corner of the end zone with 10:36 left in the quarter to tie the game at 14.

 Syracuse continued to struggle to find a rhythm, a task made harder by the excellent play of the Rams defense, who found their way into the Orange backfield with ease, sacking Nassib three times. 

“We just have to protect better up front,” offensive lineman Justin Pugh said. “Some of our guys got hit too many times and that’s on us, so we’re going to get better.”

SU saw brief sparks on offense, including a catch and run by Dorian Graham on 3rd and 16, but the hard-hitting Rams defense promptly snuffed out any offensive attack until Syracuse finally pulled away in the fourth quarter with a touchdown pass from Nassib to Michael Acchione. The reception gave SU a 21-14 lead and marked Acchione's first career touchdown. It was a magical night for the junior.  

“It was wonderful,” Acchione said. “I come from a small town, not a lot of expectations. When my time came, I was able to make the most of it. It was absolutely a dream come true.”

The defense stepped up to shut Rhode Island down and the last-ditch, 4th and 24 Hail Mary throw from Probst was intercepted by Thomas to secure the victory and move Syracuse to 2-0 on the year.

The next step for the undefeated Orange, who haven’t started 2-0 since 1999 when they defeated Toledo and Central Michigan, is the Southern California Trojans, who they will visit next Saturday.

But until then, they can relish another hard fought victory as they prove that while they may be young, they certainly can’t be counted out.

“A win is a win,” Nassib said. “They are not easy to come by. We left a lot of points out there (on the field) but I’m proud of our guys for sticking with it.”

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