The Syracuse Orange football program needed a legendary second-half performance from its senior quarterback Ryan Nassib Saturday if it wanted to rally and earn a Big East Conference road win for the first time since Nov. of 2010. And, wow, did it ever get it.
Trailing by 20 points at halftime, Nassib helped lead Syracuse on five second-half touchdown drives, including a spectacular game-winning one that marched 75 yards on eight plays in just 1 minute, 20 seconds. The drive was capped by a one-yard touchdown reception by senior wide receiver Alec Lemon, who capped the scoring and gave the Orange a 37-36 lead with :03 remaining.
The Nassib to Lemon pitch-and-catch not only polished off a remarkable rally and helped the Orange escape Tampa, FL with a one-point league victory. It also completed the signal caller's most memorable performance of his three-season career, and it couldn't have come at a better time.
A loss to USF would have seemingly killed SU's hopes of reaching the six-win mark that allows a program to become bowl eligible. The Orange would have dropped to 3-5 overall and be forced to win three of their last four games to finish at 6-6, a tough task considering the upcoming schedule features: Cincinnati Bearcats (road), Louisville Cardinals (home), Missouri Tigers and Temple Owls (road).
However, Nassib's second-half performance (18-for-224 with 258 yards and four touchdowns) helped completely turn the tides on the season.
The comeback started at the beginning of the second half with a seven-play, 84-yard touchdown drive that ended on a beautiful 31-yard strike to junior wide receiver Jarrod West. Kicker Ross Krautman's extra point capped the drive that took just 2:34 and cut USF's lead to 23-10.
Syracuse closed within six points, 23-17, after Lemon polished off a five-play, 45-yard touchdown drive with a five-yard run. The score was setup by a blocked punt by the special teams, which gave its offense the ball inside Bulls' territory.
A fumble by USF running back Demetris Murray on the first play of the ensuing drive was recovered by SU senior safety Shamarko Thomas. Soon after, Nassib hit senior wide receiver Marcus Sales with a five-yard touchdown pass to help the Orange take a 24-23 lead with 6:10 remaining in the third quarter.
Let me say that again: After failing to score more than three points in the first half, which featured four of six offensive drives marching inside USF territory, the Orange tallied 21 points in less than 8:50.
During the 21-0 run, Nassib was 5-for-6 with 79 yards and two touchdowns.
However, despite being punched in the mouth and losing what seemed to be an insurmountable lead so quickly, the Bulls managed to pull themselves together and took a 33-24 lead with 10:43 to go in the fourth quarter.
With the defense clearly playing one of its worst games in years, Nassib and the rest of the offense needed to answer. And they did, twice more.
The first touchdown drive marched 75 yards on 12 plays and ended with another Sales touchdown, this time from 19 yards out.
With the score cut to 33-31, USF tacked on a late field goal to push its advantage to 36-31. Luckily, there was enough time (1:23) for Nassib to work more of his magic.
In the first two plays of the drive, Nassib got large chunks of yardage as he found West for a 24 yards and Sales for 20. After two incomplete passes and facing a 3rd-and-10, Nassib found Sales again for 20 yards to move the ball to the USF 16-yard line.
A six-yard pass to Lemon moved the ball to the 10-yard line. After two five-yard penalties moved the ball back to the Bulls' 20, Nassib connected with Sales again for a 19-yard pass that marched the ball down to the 1/2-yard line.
As the clock ticked under 10 seconds to go, Nassib hurried the offense to the line of scrimmage and sneaked the ball in for a go-ahead score. However, a victory celebration was short lived after the play was ruled dead because USF called a timeout with :06 -- replays showed a Bulls defender would have been called for an offsides penalty if USF didn't call for time.
On the next play, Nassib took the snap from shotgun, rolled to his right and hit Lemon to complete a comeback that saved the season.
The funny thing is, for the first time this year Nassib looked extremely cool under pressure.
In the first half, USF had flustered him with some pass rush and the senior was inaccurate and couldn't help SU convert third-down situations.
At times this season that has been a common scenario for Nassib, who has failed to convert critical third downs or turned the ball over in key situations, individually hampering the offense's ability to score points.
The turnover woes had forced head coach Doug Marrone to essential call out his quarterback -- during Saturday's broadcast the ESPN3 announcers mentioned a conversation with Marrone, who said the quarterback was the one most responsible for SU's turnovers.
But facing the Big East's worst defense and seeing flashes of large production earlier in the season there was hope Nassib could find his rhythm and lead a second-half rally.
If Syracuse was going to get back into Saturday's contest it was going to be behind the arm of its senior leader.
He did. The conclusion was a 328-yard, four-touchdown and zero-interception performance that will go in the Syracuse football history books and keep fans from moving onto basketball season for at least one more week.