Three games into his second season at Syracuse, coach Doug Marrone has the Orange on the right track.
Syracuse (2-1) has won two games it absolutely had to win if it hopes to reach the team goal of playing in the postseason. Still, the Orange's latest outing demonstrated there's an awful lot of work ahead.
What turned into a 38-14 rout of Maine in Syracuse's home-opener Saturday was anything but in the first half.
The Black Bears, who play in the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Division I-AA, dominated the first quarter, forcing Syracuse to three-and-outs on both of its possessions, and played the Orange to a virtual statistical tie in the half.
"The first two games we started off well, both offensively and defensively," Marrone said Monday, referring to the season-opening 29-3 win at Akron and a 41-20 loss at Washington. "I thought our defense did a good job with Maine, but offensively we didn't start as fast as we should have. That will be addressed. That's a concern. It's a little disappointing when you drop balls."
The Black Bears led last year's game against Syracuse 17-13 at the half after successfully executing a pair of fake punts and two onside kicks. The trickery continued Saturday when Steven Barker and Desmon Randall worked a reverse to perfection on the opening kickoff.
Randall went 56 yards to the Syracuse 31 to put the Black Bears in great position to score. Four plays later, the Orange took over on downs with the ball still at the 31.
"When you win games, you're always going to be faced with some type of adversity unless you dominate from the beginning," said Marrone, whose team will meet Colgate (1-1), another FCS program, on Saturday. "We want to be at that stage, we're building to be at that stage, but we're not there now.
"It was good, and I took it that way, when they came with that reverse and ran it back," Marrone said. "Did I want it to happen? Absolutely not. I wanted that ball to be stuck down there inside their 20-yard line. But when it happens, you can't always look at things in a negative way because players are going to feed off that, feed off your emotions as a coach. My thought was, this is a great challenge for us on defense ... and they were up for it."
The offense didn't follow suit, though. Alec Lemon dropped a 10-yard pass over the middle on third down and Syracuse had to punt. Lemon, who went on to catch two of Ryan Nassib's school-record five touchdown passes in the game, had three of the Orange's five drops in the game, which brought the season's team total to nine.
"That's something we have to make sure we do a better job of," Marrone said.
Maine stacked the line of scrimmage for most of the game to stop the Syracuse running attack, and the strategy worked. Delone Carter, who scored four touchdowns in last year's win over the Black Bears, had 15 carries for 65 yards; the Orange gained just 78 yards on 26 carries, an average of just 3 yards a carry.
Nassib rebounded from the slow start to finish 19 of 28 for 260 yards, the five touchdowns, and no turnovers in just his third career start.
"If someone comes in and says, 'Hey, we're not going to let Delone Carter beat us,' then it's tough to run the football," Marrone said. "Other people have to step up, and Ryan showed that he can do it, at least in this last game. We need to continue."
The Syracuse defense clamped down in the decisive third quarter — Maine gained only 8 yards offensively while Nassib threw 20-yard scoring passes to Lemon and tight end Nick Provo — and defensive end Chandler Jones had another standout game, forcing two fumbles by Maine quarterback Warren Smith. The Orange scored off both turnovers to erase any doubts about the outcome despite incurring 14 penalties for 111 yards.
"No turnovers — that's something that needs to continue," Marrone said. "Our defense was able to get a couple of takeaways and that puts us in a better percentage to win the game, but right now we have too many penalties against us. It's hurting us as far as field position, putting us in situations that are very difficult to manage."
Notes: Mike Holmes, who returned a punt 62 yards to set up Syracuse's first touchdown against Maine, was named Big East special teams player of the week. Nassib and Jones, who had two sacks among his seven tackles, were named to the conference's weekly honor roll. ... Syracuse has played 15 freshmen so far this season, behind only Air Force (17) and Florida (16).