Syracuse has stopped its four-game losing streak. Now coach Scott Shafer has to make sure the Orange don't start another skid.
Not an easy task with the team's first-ever visit to Death Valley looming on Saturday against No. 21 Clemson (5-2, 4-1 ACC) in a key Atlantic Coast Conference matchup.
Syracuse lost 38-20 to then-No. 1 Florida State 10 days ago and hasn't beaten a ranked opponent on the road since a 19-14 victory at No. 20 West Virginia in October 2010.
"I'm looking forward to it. It's obviously one of the great venues in college football," Shafer said Tuesday, adding that he'll ramp up the noise at practice this week to get the team ready for the 80,000 fans expected at Memorial Stadium. "It'll be a great experience for our kids. We just need to continue to get more consistent. We've got to try to look forward, not backward."
It's OK to look back at least once, though.
Last week, Syracuse (3-4, 1-2 ACC) beat Wake Forest 30-7 on the road to take another step toward becoming eligible to play in the postseason for the fourth time in five years. It's an uphill climb with starting quarterback Terrel Hunt still out with a broken calf bone, but his replacement has stepped right in — almost seamlessly.
AJ Long, who enrolled in January, has been a revelation. He became the first true freshman quarterback in Syracuse history to win his starting debut and was named ACC rookie of the week for his effort against the Demon Deacons. Long was 22 of 32 for 171 yards passing without a turnover and scored on a 4-yard run, the first rushing touchdown of his career.
"The thing that he brings to the table is confidence, and I think his older brothers in the huddle appreciate that force that he brings," Shafer said of Long, who in two games is 38 of 59 for 338 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions. "It's very contagious to have a guy like that in the huddle."
Due to a slew of injuries — 10 players were listed as out against Wake Forest and three of the four who were either questionable or doubtful also didn't play — Syracuse has used six different offensive line combinations. Eight players have started at least once, with right guard Nick Robinson, right tackle Ivan Foy, and center John Miller all missing at least one game because of injury. Preseason All-ACC left tackle Sean Hickey has been the steady guy, the only member of the group to start every game, and has a streak of 33 consecutive starts.
Despite all the juggling, Syracuse is tied for fourth in the FBS in fewest sacks allowed with five, or one for every 47.2 pass attempts. Only Duke, Michigan State and Wisconsin, each with four, have given up fewer sacks.
The Orange will face a stiff test in the Clemson defense, which ranks fourth in the nation in sacks with 25.
"Hopefully, we can get a handful of guys back," Shafer said.
Clemson beat Syracuse 49-14 a year ago in the Carrier Dome as Tajh Boyd threw for 455 yards and five touchdowns.