It looked like Syracuse was on its way to déjà vu all over again. In a Saturday afternoon tilt at the Carrier Dome, the Orange was locked in a tight battle after coming into the contest as a heavy favorite. One week after falling to Middle Tennessee State, 30-23, SU trailed Central Michigan by a touchdown midway through the second quarter.
“I think we just stayed together as a family,” sophomore safety Evan Foster said after the game. “Because we knew that people would think that we wouldn’t be able to get the job done since the game was kind of going the same way it did last week.”
But then, the flip switched. Last year, Dino Babers predicted that his team would reach full-speed between the fourth and sixth games of this season? He may have been half a game early.
After the Chippewas found the end zone to make it 17-10 with 7:52 to play in the first half, Sean Riley returned the ensuing kickoff 64 yards to the CMU 32-yard-line. A couple minutes later, Eric Dungey found a wide-open Dontae Strickland for an 18-yard score, and the floodgates were open.
“We just kept pushing,” said Foster.
Those were the first seven of 31 unanswered points SU piled up in the last 35:20. The defense was suffocating. The running game was explosive and efficient. Both sides of the ball maintained phenomenal consistency. In other words, the team didn’t look like Syracuse.
The Orange finished with 300 yards on the ground and 287 through the air. Everything clicked.
Dungey actually slid. Moe Neal ripped off a 71-yard scamper. Steve Ishmael continued to emerge as a bona fide go-to guy. Sean Riley emerged as a legitimate offensive weapon. Dontae Strickland averaged three yards per carry.
Dungey returned to the lethal form we saw in Week 1, when he shredded Central Connecticut State to the tune of 28-for-36, 328 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. The efficiency wasn’t quite as sterling — 19-for-35, 279 yards, two scores, one pick — but the junior ripped the top off the CMU defense multiple times, including once with his legs: he sprinted 74 yards in the third quarter to set up a six-yard touchdown pass to Ravian Pierce.
“I mean it was good, but I wish I would’ve scored,” Dungey said. “I haven’t had a long run like that since high school. The offensive linemen did a great job making a hole for me so I saw the opportunity and just tried to make a play.”
One of Dungey’s favorite weapons was, surprisingly, Sean Riley. The 5-foot-8, 155-pound sophomore is usually restricted to the return game, but after Erv Philips went down early (it didn’t seem serious; Babers didn’t provide an update when asked about the injury after the game), Riley filled his shoes as the team’s do-it-all slot machine. He finished with four rushes for 47 yards — mostly on jet sweeps — and four catches for 82 more. He was extremely fun to watch.
“We call it ‘peacocking’ when, you know, peacocks take their feathers and stick them out like that,” Babers said. “I said [to Sean], ‘If you’re going to peacock you’re going to get more footballs.’ There’s no doubt he had his feathers spread today.”
This game was, in terms of qualifying for a bowl, a must-win. Two down, four to go.