Orange prove they're here to stay

CINCINNATI -- Yes, it's Halloween weekend, and yes, Syracuse's mascot is an orange spheroid.

But, no, this is not the story of the Great Pumpkin.

These Orange can no longer be discounted as an October tall tale. They are, in fact, for real -- and pointing toward a big November.

Incontrovertible proof arrived Saturday at what used to be a haunted house for Big East visitors: Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium. Two years ago, Syracuse trudged out of here a 20-point loser in the last game of the Greg Robinson era as giddy Bearcats fans pelted the field with oranges.

Midway through the fourth quarter this time, orange was again the dominant color scheme, but only because the visiting fans dotted the otherwise empty stands. The longtime league basement dweller ushered in a new Big East world order with a 31-7 humbling of the two-time defending league champs.

"Yeah, I remember," senior safety Max Suter said when asked about the last trip here. "It was a terrible feeling. They knew they were going to win and everybody brought their oranges. I feel like people aren't going to do that anymore."

It's no longer even safe to schedule your homecoming around the Orange visit. Once mere parade dressing, Syracuse has spoiled three other teams' fall celebrations in a row (South Florida, West Virginia and Cincinnati) while winning its first three league road games for the first time since 2001. More importantly, the Orange improved to 6-2 overall to guarantee the school's first non-losing season since 2004.

"This is the most games I've ever won in college," senior linebacker Derrell Smith said. "We may be approaching the most games I've won throughout my college career. It feels great to go out with a bang."

The bang could get louder. The Orange have already navigated what looked like the most difficult portion of the schedule, and here is how the closing stretch shapes up: Home games against Louisville (4-4), Connecticut (4-4) and Boston College (3-5) with the lone road game at Rutgers (4-3). Who's to say that Syracuse can't win all of those?

"I don't want this dream to end," defensive tackle Bud Tribbey said.

Neither did the small but giddy Syracuse contingent who stuck around in their seats long after the game to cheer players and coaches exiting the locker room. When head coach Doug Marrone emerged to talk to the media, the fans shouted, "We love Doug!" Marrone quickly retreated back up the visitors' tunnel, seeming uncomfortable by the adulation.

The second-year head coach has worked wonders at his alma mater, but he's not embracing the success yet. He remained reserved in his postgame comments, allowing only that the sixth win was a "step in the right direction."

"We haven't accomplished anything," he said. "We have a long way to go and a lot of improvement to make, and we can make it. We're a 6-2 football team trying to fight and scratch and get another win."

Perhaps Marrone realizes how amazing this turnaround has been. The program is still so low in numbers and depth that the team hasn't practiced in full pads for the past several weeks, fearing injury.

Defense has carried them this far. The Orange limited the Big East's top scoring team to one score Saturday, a week after shutting out West Virginia for the final 46 minutes. They've held Big East road opponents an average of 10 points per game.

And after years of suffering, Syracuse seems to be catching some breaks.

Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros, whom Orange defensive coordinator Scott Shafer called his "favorite player in the league" sat out with a bruised knee, and replacement Chazz Anderson couldn't replicate his production. Balls are bouncing the Orange's way, too; they picked up two Cincinnati fumbles Saturday, and when fullback Adam Harris lost the ball on the goal line, center Ryan Bartholomew fell on it for a touchdown.

When the Bearcats drove down the field to start the second half and threatened to make the score 17-14, Anderson inexplicably threw the ball straight to Smith. He returned it 60 yards, setting up yet another short field for the offense -- four of the team's five scoring drives began in Cincinnati territory. Syracuse capitalized by scoring its most points this year against an FBS opponent.

Are the Orange for real? They're real enough for this year's Big East. Cincinnati has lost its edge, dropping to 3-5 and at severe risk of missing the postseason. West Virginia has lost two straight and is tied for last place. Only Pitt has outplayed Syracuse in Big East action, and the Panthers' 45-14 win in the Carrier Dome gives them a virtual two-game cushion in the league standings.

This is a team playing with passion, physicality and confidence, and the upperclassmen say Marrone has instilled a togetherness they've never before experienced.

"Words can't even explain it," Suter said. "It's awesome that this team came from what it was to what it is right now. It's awesome. Just awesome."

And it's a story you can now safely believe in.