SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Thumb through the Syracuse media guide to the records section, and it's no surprise the first three pages are devoted to rushing. For a school steeped in a tradition of greatness at running back, the first half of the season was an anomaly.
The Orange failed to have one 100-yard rusher and fell to 2-4. Then Jerome Smith finally broke through against Connecticut on Friday night.
Smith rushed for a career-high 133 yards to pace a running game that netted 251, averaging 4.7 yards per carry, and the Orange (3-4, 2-1 Big East) routed the Huskies 40-10.
Coaches always strive for balance, and Syracuse delivered against UConn with equal yardage in both phases and 20 points in each half. Ryan Nassib was 14 of 20 passing for 251 yards in an offensive performance that netted 502 yards to Connecticut's 290. UConn entered the game ranked sixth in total defense (261 ypg) and 13th against the run (99.4).
"It was a big emphasis," Orange coach Doug Marrone said of the run game. "There was a lot of frustration. We knew we had to run the ball. We challenged those guys. We challenged them up front. We challenged their backs. I think we did a nice job. It shows that we can keep building and keep becoming more physical."
Syracuse lost the first two games of the season, to Northwestern and Southern California relying on a no-huddle offense that ran an amazing 182 plays and produced 1,051 yards. The rushing attempts were there (35 per game) but the yardage wasn't (3.6 yards per carry) as Smith, Nassib and Prince-Tyson Gulley combined for the bulk of the carries.
In losing 23-15 at Rutgers 10 days ago, Syracuse managed just 62 yards rushing on 32 carries, committed four turnovers, and had a blocked kick returned for a touchdown. That came after a solid 14-13 win at home over Pittsburgh in this topsy-turvy season.
The Orange set the tone against UConn on their opening drive, playing smash-mouth football as Smith broke a 20-yard gain on the first of four straight carries that produced 49 yards and set up Ross Krautman's 22-yard field goal.
"It was execution," Syracuse offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. "I mean, they just did what they were supposed to do. As simple as that sounds, it's hard to do. Nobody's coming out and dominating us. Nobody's beat us every game this season, and it's been on us."
Just that one series seemed to have a snowball effect as the Syracuse passing game opened, even against the likes of UConn's standout cornerbacks Dwayne Gratz and Blidi Wreh-Wilson. They combined for just five tackles and failed to break up a pass. Alec Lemon was open often on slant plays and tight end Beckett Wales caught four passes for 69 yards and the first touchdown of his career.
"We showed that we are a complete team in all three phases," said Lemon, who caught eight passes for 166 yards, setting up three TDs and scoring once. "The first couple of drives we were running the ball great. That brought the corners up, brought the safeties up. They were worried about the run and that opened up a lot for the pass game. We could get open up the field."
Since its demoralizing start, Syracuse is 3-1 and might challenge for the Big East title, though the loss to Rutgers won't help.
The Orange travel to South Florida (2-5, 0-3) on Saturday, facing a team that's given Syracuse fits over the years. The Bulls have lost 11 of 12 Big East games dating to last season, but they nearly upset No. 16 Louisville last weekend before losing 27-25.
"We wanted to make a statement," Lemon said. "We're capable of winning all these games. We've just got to come out there and play like we know how to play. Our goal coming into this season was to win the Big East, and I feel like we're on track to do that."