SYRACUSE, N.Y. – When Syracuse decided to go to a no-huddle offense before the start of the season, the Orange lost focus.
"We went into this up-tempo thing, we threw it together, and you just kind of naturally think that it's about passing," Syracuse offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. "We wanted to really stretch it out, spread 'em out, throw the ball around. It worked. It did some nice things."
That it did. In the first two games of the season, Ryan Nassib completed 75 of 112 passes for 804 yards and six touchdowns with three interceptions. The end result? Two losses — 42-41 at home to Northwestern 42-29 to then-No.2 Southern California at MetLife Stadium — as the run game became an afterthought.
Coach Doug Marrone said during preseason camp that none of the running backs had stood out, and that assessment seemed accurate. In the first six games, junior Jerome Smith, the back with the most experience, had 78 carries for 355 yards, an average of 13 carries for 59 yards.
Not exactly the sort of production expected at a school that built a winning tradition on the legs of some of the greatest running backs in history. Sitting at 2-4 and with the season slipping away, though, Hackett had one of those "Duh!" moments.
"I looked at it and said, 'We need to run this ball more. We've just got to start pounding this rock more.' That's what we were lacking," he said. "It was something we just recommitted to. Now, when in doubt, call a run. That's more my mentality."
Since a bad loss at Rutgers — Syracuse had four turnovers and a blocked field goal in New Jersey — everything has changed in the run game and the Orange has rebounded with three wins in four games.
Smith had 133 yards rushing as the Orange gained 251 yards on the ground in a 40-10 victory over Connecticut. Smith has followed that with three more 100-yard outings, including a career-high 144 vs. Louisville to bring his season total to 875.
"I finally decided to do my job," said Smith, whose experience entering the season was minimal (37 carries, 134 yards). "Up until six weeks ago, I wasn't doing my job. I wasn't putting in the time I was supposed to. Everything, it seems like it's starting to work out now. I'm pretty excited."
Smith's backfield mate, Prince-Tyson Gulley, has yet to crack the 100-yard barrier, but he's become a solid contributor with 383 yards on 89 carries.
All it took was a change in mindset.
"You want to bring that punch, bring that violence. I think that's a huge deal," Hackett said. "I think for Jerome that switch has flipped for him. You've got to take it to people. You can't accept the blows. He's got to give it, and I think that's what has set him apart from where he was. He tries to deliver that blow every time.
"They've really been running angry. They've been running with a purpose. They're looking to go after people, they're not looking just to kind of dance around and escape. They're looking to go downhill."
And into the postseason.
Syracuse (5-5, 4-2 Big East) has two games left, at Missouri (5-5) and Temple (3-6, 2-4). One more win is needed for bowl eligibility.
"It just kind of started clicking, gelling on all levels," offensive guard Justin Pugh said of the ground game. "This is a great school for running backs, and hopefully (Smith) will be the next in line.
"It's something we take pride in."