There was nothing pretty about the way the Syracuse University football programed ended its 2011 season Saturday, as the Orange committed six turnovers, totaled more than 100 penalty yards and surrendered 30-plus points for the sixth time this year in a 33-20 loss at the University of Pittsburgh in a Big East Conference game. Syracuse ended its season with five straight losses and failed to become bowl eligible for the eighth time in 10 seasons.
In hindsight, Syracuse's seventh loss of the season was a perfect example of how much has changed since the Orange's decisive 49-23 victory over then No. 11-ranked West Virgina University, Oct. 21. For some reason, after playing a flawless game against the Mountaineers, the SU players thought it was a better strategy to not hang onto the football and commit an absurd amount of personal-foul penalties than to just execute on both offense and defense.
A year after qualifying for the postseason and winning the Pinstripe Bowl, 36-34, over Kansas State University, the Orange regressed as a program. However, the harsh reality that SU football fans are coming to terms with Monday -- good thing there was NFL on Sunday -- is that the Orange were lacking the talent and leadership needed to earn a Big East championship.
Now, some will twist that last statement and think it was a dig on head coach Doug Marrone, but let me assure you: it wasn't. In fact, if there's one thing that I learned about Orange football this season, it's that Marrone will and should be SU's head coach for a long time. There isn't anyone in the nation who wants to figure out what went wrong for the Orange more than Marrone and I don't care what anybody says, that's the most important characteristic a rebuilding football program, like Syracuse, needs in a head coach.
Marrone doesn't want to go anywhere. He wants to be the Syracuse football head coach for a long time and hopefully grow this program into something Orange fans can be proud of. Last year was just a glimpse of what was possible. And, if anybody doubts that strategy of hiring a coach that is committed to a program, ask SU men's basketball coach Jim Boeheim how that philosophy worked for his career.
The fact is, it takes a while for a football program to grow into something that's consistent. Football isn't like basketball where one big-name recruit can turn a below-.500 program into a national title contender. It takes a solid 30-plus players to give a football program depth that allows it to outlast injuries and create a winning culture.
After SU's successful season last year, it lost three top-notch players -- linebackers Doug Hogue, Derrell Smith and running back Delone Carter -- and two more defensive players to the NFL. Those losses proved to be huge for SU, which finished this season with the worst defense in the Big East after last year finishing seventh nationally.
The Orange entered this season featuring six new starters on defense and counted on senior free safety Phillip Thomas and junior strong saftey Shamarko Thomas to fill those leadership-talent roles. However, Phillip Thomas proved that he could catch the ball, but couldn't consistently cover or tackle (and that's being nice), while Sharmarko Thomas had a hard time staying healthy.
The linebacker position, which was vacated by Smith and Hogue, was supposed to be filled by an inexperienced but deep core that featured returner Marquis Spruill, and talented freshmen Dyshawn Davis and Cameron Lynch. At times during the season, both Davis and Lynch showed glimpses of greatness, but were not at all consistent enough to be counted on. Meanwhile, senior defensive end Chandler Jones could terrorize opposing quarterbacks -- just ask WVU's quarterback Geno Smith -- but missed a lot of the season with a lower body injury; And, Mikhail Marinovich was a nice guy to root for, but never had the talent to make a huge impact.
In the locker room, it seems the attitude of the team changed after the blowout victory over the Mountaineers. After that win it seemed like players forgot Marrone's main cliches -- "one game at a time", "we're not good enough to look forward", "we have something to prove to naysayers" -- that seemed to create a winning attitude.
With the lack of talent and a poor attitude it is very hard for a rebuilding program to win. Yes, Marrone should get some of the blame -- I commented a few weeks ago, that if SU didn't make a bowl game after a 5-2 start to the season, a lot of the blame will be, and rightfully so, put on his shoulders -- but there's only so much quality food a cook can make with bad ingredients.
And, that's the basic story of the 2011 Syracuse Orange.