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Bowl game offers Orange shot at revenge

It’s an appropriate bookend to the season, Syracuse center Macky MacPherson admits. The 2013 campaign began with two games against the Big Ten and it will end with another when the Orange play Minnesota in the Texas Bowl on Friday.

Of course, when MacPherson looks at his Syracuse offense now, those first two games seem like a lifetime ago.

“You’re looking at an entirely different Syracuse team now compared to the team that played the Penn State and Northwestern games,” MacPherson said.

It’s not hyperbole. Syracuse lost those first two games behind a sluggish offense desperately in search of an identity. After a quarterback change and some growing pains, however, the Orange feel like they’ve finally figured out a winning formula.

“We were searching for a quarterback, and we went through a quarterback change,” tailback Jerome Smith said. “We struggled on whether we were going to be a pass or run team, and I think we found a better combination of how to do things. We’ve found an identity the past few weeks.”

That Syracuse even has a bowl game to prepare for is a testament to the resilience of this group, but the slow climb to six wins also proved a valuable learning experience.

In those first two games against the Big Ten, quarterback Drew Allen completed just 55 percent of his passes, throwing for one TD and six interceptions. Syracuse turned to Terrel Hunt, who was exceptional in two more nonconference games against Wagner and Tulane, but struggled in ACC play. In Hunt’s first six conference games, he didn’t throw a touchdown pass, while Smith and the running game carried the load.

“By no means is the quarterback at Syracuse University a small task,” Smith said of Hunt’s early struggles. “He had to figure some things out, but he’s doing pretty well.”

Indeed, Hunt’s last two games of the season were by far his best. He completed 66 percent of his passes and threw for three touchdowns with just one INT. Suddenly, Syracuse’s enigmatic offense showed signs of real progress.

“Terrel has really matured as a quarterback,” MacPherson said. “I can tell you he’s become a better leader and he’s done all the intangible things a quarterback needs to do.”

Hunt’s development added a spark to the workhorse effort Smith was already providing on the ground, and that has Syracuse excited about the future. The only problem is, there’s just one game left on the schedule. And for seniors like MacPherson, it’s the last game of their careers.

“It’s a shame our season is ending because it’d be fun to see what this team could do with a few more games,” MacPherson said.

But for Syracuse, the “what if” game is easy to play. Look no further than those first two games against the Big Ten. What might have been if Syracuse had been in stride offensively from the outset? How different might things have unfolded if Hunt was the starter from Day 1?

“We’re hitting our stride,” Smith said. “If we had a chance to play some teams again, I think it would be a different outcome.”

There’s little point in lamenting the past, but that’s part of what makes this bowl game so significant for the Orange.

A year ago, Syracuse lost to Minnesota. A few months ago, the Gophers’ Big Ten cohorts did more damage.

Now, as the clock runs out on 2013, it’s Syracuse’s chance for some revenge. And after a rocky road to bowl eligibility, revenge would taste awfully sweet.

“In the beginning of the season we didn’t play our best football,” MacPherson said. “Now it seems like we’re on our way.”