Saturday's 42-29 loss to the No. 2-ranked USC Trojans will go into the college football history books as just another double-digit victory for a top 5 program over the Syracuse Orange. But for "New York's College Team" its efforts in a non-conference showdown at MetLife Stadium -- dubbed as New York's College Classic -- could, in the long run, mean more than that.
After a severe weather delayed the start of the second half a hour, which began with USC (2-0) leading 14-3, the Trojans seemed to put the game out of reach with a four-yard touchdown reception by junior wide receiver Robert Woods, who helped increase USC's lead to 21-3 with 10 minutes, 24 seconds to go in the third quarter.
However, the Orange (0-2) didn't back down answering with two late third-quarter scores -- a three-yard TD reception by senior wide receiver Marcus Sales and a seven-yard run by junior running back Prince-Tyson Gulley -- that helped trim the advantage to 21-16 with 1:59 to play in the third quarter.
After a defense stop by the SU defense, the Orange offense had a shot to give the 25 1/2-point underdog a lead as they started the fourth quarter with the ball at its 20-yard line.
But the task was too much for SU, which went three-and-out on the possible go-ahead possession and was forced to punt. The ensuing return from USC's Woods came back 31 yards and setup another Trojan touchdown -- a 22-yard reception by Xavier Grimble from senior quarterback Matt Barkley -- that helped push the lead to 28-16 with 14:26 remaining in the game.
From there, the deficit was too much for the Orange to overcome but, in the big scheme of things, the Orange had already won.
"We did win the moral victory,' said senior wide receiver Alec Lemon, who caught five balls and had 34 receiving yards. "At the end of the day, everyone has wins and losses. But at the end of the day we looked at it as a team and it was the No. 2 team in the nation and we put up a good fight against them. We lost the game, but we feel great about what we did. Coming up, we know what we can do in 10 more games."
Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone, who seemed almost giddy after the loss, had nearly the same feeling.
"I was really excited about the character of the kids," said Marrone. "To be able to go out there and compete and, in my opinion, win a lot of plays during the course of the game is really exciting for me."
Here's a breakdown of the key components of Saturday's moral victory over the Trojans.
4th-and-2 with 12:50 to go
For a brief moment Saturday, the Orange had the Trojans on their heels. After a touchdown run by SU's sophomore running back Prince Tyson-Gulley -- his second of the season -- and a defense stop from the Orange defense, Syracuse had the ball trailing 28-16 with a chance to take the lead.
Four plays later, Syracuse had the ball near midfield but was facing a 4th-and-2 situation with 12:50 remaining in the game. From the fans perspective, it was an easy call -- go for it, you've got nothing to lose. However, from a coach's standpoint the decision was more conservative -- punt, give your guys a chance to make a big play.
"I thought about it," said Marrone. "I was thinking to myself before the drive started, if this thing goes down to six minutes, five minutes, then I probably will have to go for it. Then, I was thinking if its around eight with two timeouts left and I can kick a good punt to put them back there, I am probably going to get better field position and I am going to be in good shape."
When it comes down to making game management decisions like that, Marrone has one basic philosophy.
"You never want to take the game away from the players. If I go for it then and I give USC the ball at the 50 and they score we're out of it. If I punt that ball and give our defense a helluva chance to hold'em and I get that ball back, at least, we're in the game even if we have to onside kick it."
Ryan Nassib's third quarter
SU senior quarterback Ryan Nassib finished the game with a stat line of 30 of 46 for 322 passing yards and two touchdown and two interceptions. Overall, the third-year starter's stats were solid but not great enough to lead his squad past a No. 2-ranked opponent.
However, there were glimpses of greatness in Nassib's play, and most of the eyebrow-raising moments came during Syracuse's two-touchdown third-quarter performance that helped trim USC's lead to one possession entering the fourth quarter.
In the two SU scoring drives, Nassib was 8-for-10 with 90 passing yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions, and it seemed every pass was thrown on the money -- the best was a 31-yard beauty to sophomore wide receiver Jerrod West that helped setup a touchdown which cut USC's lead to 21-10 with about six minutes remaining in the third quarter.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of the leadership that Ryan has provided for this team," said Marrone. "Your talking about someone who could have been a two-year starter that could of just went a long with his business. Obviously, he would have been a starter again but this kid has worked extremely hard to be a leader in this program and I can't thank him enough for those efforts."
The phrase has been the same for Nassib and the Orange the past few seasons -- as Nassib goes as does the SU offense. And Saturday's third-quarter effort helped support that belief and possibly opened some NFL Draft eyes.
James Woods, USC talent squeezes Orange again
For the second year in a row, USC's offensive weapons were just too much for the Syracuse defense to handle and the disparity in talent is what eventually was the game's deciding factor.
The biggest difference-maker Saturday was Woods, who was a thorn in the side of the Orange secondary and special teams unit for the second straight year -- Last season, Woods tallied eight catches for 82 receiving yards and a touchdown, while in this year's showdown the 6'1, 190-pound Heisman Trophy candidate caught 10 passes for 93 yards and two touchdowns. Woods also added a 31-yard punt return that setup the Trojans' put-away TD with 14:26 to go.
"At the end of the day they have very good players," said Marrone. "They have three excellent players in Barkley, Woods and Lee. I think they're elite college football players, first-round type caliber draft picks."
Luckily for the Orange, their head coach has been a part of programs loaded with play-making talent and that experience helped Syracuse prepare for Saturday's contest.
"My big thing during the week was make sure we can withstand the early blows," said Marrone. "I've been on both sides of the fence -- I coached for an elite team at the University of Tennessee and those game plans were like, OK, we're going to throw a bunch of gos to Donte Stallworth and Kelly Washington, get up 21 and when are we taking them out?
So, for me during the week my deal was to say, 'Hey, lets stay in this thing. Lets withstand the initial blows of USC and hang in there and lets see where we can be come that third and fourth quarter. Lets try to take them out of their tempo and I think at times we did."
David Tyree: New York/New Jersey presence a must for SU
All week there was a lot of scuttlebutt, especially during the one-hour severe weather delay, about this game being played in East Rutherford, NJ and not inside the friendly confines of a possible packed Carrier Dome.
But as much as SU fans may dislike it, the Orange's attempt to force sports fans in the tri-state area to adapt its college program as theirs is a necessity these days. And before Saturday's contest one of Syracuse's most notable tri-state alums, former New York Giants wide receiver David Tyree, spoke about this very topic to the media.
"Being a local Jersey guy and being recruited out of here to go to a distinguished university like Syracuse. I think this is hallmark moment for the program," said Tyree. "Its a great opportunity for alumni in the New York City base to rally around a great program."
Not only is it big for the alumni, says Tyree, but it will also help Syracuse reclaim its recruiting territory in the tri-state area.
"When I was coming out of high school Syracuse was premier local school to get recruited by," said Tyree. "And it meant a lot to me that I was able to take my talents up there and have success. This is the only BCS school in the state of New York and we've been alluded as such, so this gives us a platform that the university really needs."
For complete coverage of New York's College Classic featuring Syracuse vs. USC, check back to this SB Nation New York StoryStream. For in-depth coverage of the Orange visit Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, while Conquest Chronicles is all about the Trojans.