Syracuse hoping effort equals wins soon

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

When Syracuse linebacker Derrell Smith got home after the Penn State game, he just sat in a chair and stared blankly ahead.

For the second straight game, the Orange had turned in a valiant effort against a Big Ten opponent but came out on the losing end.

"I was just like, 'Wow, I can't believe we lost these games after how hard we worked,'" Smith said. "I've never hurt this much after losing. Obviously, we've lost a lot in the past, but that was different."

There does seem to be something different about this Syracuse team, which has more of a fight in it than many of the Greg Robinson era teams. Still, the fact remains that the Orange are 0-2 under first-year coach Doug Marrone, and the schedule doesn't get any easier this week with Northwestern coming to the Carrier Dome.

"It's one of those things that if we had played some lesser teams and have won some games, we'd be sitting here saying, do you think the team's ready for the [rest of the] schedule?" Marrone said. "I don't think any of us is going to question whether our team is ready to go into the Big East schedule or any other game in the future."

The Orange have learned a lot about themselves against Minnesota and Penn State. They've learned, for one, that the defense is pretty solid. The linebacker corps seemed like a big question mark, with three guys there all in new roles. Smith is playing middle linebacker for the first time. Strongside linebacker Doug Hogue was a running back last year. And the weakside spot has had a rotating door, with freshman E.J. Carter the latest player to walk through it.

But through all of that, the linebackers have proven to be fast and capable of making plays.

"In the spring, I was unsure about the [middle] spot, but now I think I'm getting better at it," said Smith, who leads the team in tackles. "At the beginning of camp, I had to help line up the other guys, but they're maturing as the season goes along. Now I can just worry about my spot and go out there and make plays."

Syracuse has learned that Greg Paulus is a capable quarterback, though he is still figuring things out. He's also been victimized by dropped passes, including one that should have been a Mike Williams touchdown at Penn State and another that was bobbled for an interception.

The team has good backs in Delone Carter and Antwon Bailey, but some of its most successful plays have come out of the Wildcat -- or Stallion, as Marrone calls it -- formation. The Orange are averaging just 2.5 yards per carry, though some of that is weighed down by quarterback sacks.

Marrone said it might be time to simplify the offense.

"I think we have to cut back," he said. "The first thing we have to look at is, are we giving our players, especially the line, the ability to be aggressive -- the ability to just line up then come off the football? Are they thinking too much? Are we giving them too much to think about from a defensive front standpoint? At the end of the day, you have to look at what you're doing and maybe limit some of the things from a run-game standpoint to get our players coming off the football."

Things won't be easy against yet another solid Big Ten team, but the players are sick of moral victories. Smith said he got a lot of text messages after both the Minnesota and Penn State loss from people telling him the team looked a lot better.

"There's a lot of optimism," he said. "But the reality is, we haven't won a game yet. We can look as good as we want to, but we need to get a win on the board to show for it."