When Orange tailback Jerome Smith steamrolled through Connecticut on the first drive of the game, Syracuse sensed its game plan would work.
Did it ever.
Alec Lemon had eight catches for 166 yards to help set up three touchdowns, caught an 11-yard scoring pass, and Syracuse beat Connecticut 40-10 on Friday night to spoil Huskies coach Paul Pasqualoni's return nearly eight years after he was fired by the Orange.
With the run game purring — Smith had a career-high 133 yards as the Orange gained 251 yards on the ground — Lemon took advantage of the middle and was virtually unstoppable. He had receptions of 41 yards and a career-long 68 yards to set up scores late in the second period and on the first possession of the third to help break open the game, then caught a short one over the middle as the Orange wreaked havoc on both sides of the ball.
"The running game was going," said Lemon, who has 27 catches for 475 yards in four games against UConn. "We just feed off the running game in the pass game, keep it going. And we knew they were tired out there."
A loss for Syracuse (3-4, 2-1 Big East) not only would have been embarrassing, it would have made reaching a bowl game a daunting task with five games left. The Orange snapped a five-game losing streak against UConn (3-5, 0-3).
"It was a big game, sure," Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said. "You're fighting, you're fighting, you're fighting. The kids did a good job during the week. Let's call it like it is. We were 2-4 and that's not good enough. The pressure's turned up. The kids did a good job and won a game. It doesn't take the pressure off. If anything, it shows — let's take this next step."
Pasqualoni's departure after the 2004 season at Syracuse was awkward at best. His firing came only three weeks after Chancellor Nancy Cantor had given him a public vote of confidence to return for the final year of his contract. That was before a 51-14 loss to Georgia Tech in the Champs Sports Bowl to end the 2004 season.
New athletic director Daryl Gross, on the job less than two weeks, quickly decided a change was needed and Pasqualoni was fired after 14 seasons. He left as the second-winningest coach in Syracuse history with a 107-59-1 record, behind only Ben Schwartzwalder's 153 victories.
On this night, Coach P, who beat his old team a year ago at home, was seeking his 150th victory as a college coach. Although the Orange didn't oblige, Pasqualoni said he enjoyed his welcome.
"It was good to be here tonight. The people were great," he said. "They were nice and very hospitable. We just wish we could have done a little bit better."
The Syracuse defense repeatedly pressured quarterback Chandler Whitmer, stuffed the Connecticut run game, and finally created a turnover — just its sixth of the year — that led to a score.
Outscored 17-0 in the third, Connecticut finished with minus-6 yards rushing on 18 attempts, while Whitmer was 23 of 41 for 296 yards and one touchdown and an interception — in the final minute. The Huskies converted only 3 of 13 third downs.
"We just didn't do a lot of things well," Whitmer said. "They got out front early and it was tough to fight back. We didn't do what we expected to do."
The Orange did.
Ryan Nassib was 14 of 20 for 251 yards passing and Ross Krautman kicked four field goals as Syracuse racked up 502 yards offensively and did not commit a turnover. In its first six games, Syracuse committed 15 turnovers and gained only five, giving it one of the worst turnover margins in the nation.
After Rutgers nabbed four turnovers and turned a blocked field goal into a touchdown in a 23-15 win over Syracuse last Saturday, the Orange focused during practice this week on creating some of their own, and the hard work paid off in the second quarter.
Free safety Durell Eskridge blitzed, forcing a fumble by Whitmer, and Cameron Lynch recovered for the Orange near midfield. It was the 17th turnover of the season for the Huskies and the Orange capitalized.
Nassib converted two critical third-down passes to keep the ensuing drive alive, hitting tight end Beckett Wales for 18 yards over the middle and Lemon for 17 yards in traffic.
That set up a first-and-goal at the 10, and Adonis Ameen-Moore scored on fourth-and-inches for a 13-3 lead midway through the second quarter.
The Huskies finally got untracked just before halftime. Whitmer hit Michael Smith for 18 yards on a slant and followed with a 23-yard completion to Shakim Phillips. After a pass-interference call against the Orange, Whitmer ran right, then turned and hit tight end Ryan Griffin all alone on the left side for a 32-yard score to make it 13-10 with 3:39 left, a play reminiscent of bygone days in the Carrier Dome.
Pasqualoni and offensive coordinator George DeLeone, together again at UConn, created one of the most memorable plays in Syracuse history when they ran the Orange offense. Donovan McNabb threw the same pass to tight end Stephen Brominski on the last play of the game to beat Virginia Tech 28-26 in 1998.
Undaunted, Syracuse drove 77 yards for another touchdown, keyed by Lemon's brilliant 41-yard catch and run to the UConn 2. Nassib then rolled right and hit Wales for a 3-yard score and a 20-10 halftime lead.
Syracuse put the game out of reach in the third. After Lemon's 68-yard reception put the ball at the 2, Prince-Tyson Gulley scored on a 3-yard run.
Krautman kicked a 42-yard field goal, his third of the game, for a 30-10 lead midway through the period, and Lemon capped his brilliant night with an 11-yard reception over the middle with 2 minutes left in the period.
"When our guys understand what their job is, do their job, they're really good," Syracuse offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. "I think that's really what it was. The guys executed the game plan almost to perfection.
"Nobody's dominated us. Every game this season, it's been on us."