Ryan Nassib got in front of his teammates, calm and relaxed. Syracuse was just moments away from taking the field against unbeaten Louisville, ranked No. 9 and favored to win.
Not many gave the Orange a chance. But it was senior night in the Carrier Dome and Nassib – a senior – delivered a powerful pregame speech that offensive tackle Sean Hickey still remembers. “That got everybody fired up, wanting to play for the seniors and go out there and play the best we possibly could.”
Syracuse completely dominated, winning 45-26 and ruining the Cards’ unbeaten season. On the Louisville sideline, players stood in disbelief. “We were undefeated and to see things play out the way they did, it was a shock, period,” Louisville receiver Eli Rogers said.
That was the last time they met, as Big East members in 2012. Though much will be different when they play tonight in the Carrier Dome as ACC teams, both squads return many players with vivid memories of that day.
What happened has not been forgotten. Immediately after Louisville beat Wake Forest last Saturday, the veterans started mentioning Syracuse.
“I asked one of our coaches, ‘What’s that all about?’ and they said, ‘Oh, well, a couple years ago, they were going on their way up there and they were undefeated and lost the game,” said Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, in his first year with the Cardinals. “But really since then, I haven't heard a whole lot. Our focus is really just to get ready to play and go up and do a good job of playing the game right.”
Unlike their last meeting -- featuring Nassib and Teddy Bridgewater -- quarterback play has been up and down for both. True freshman Reggie Bonnafon will make his second career start for the Cardinals, while Terrel Hunt looks to clean up the Syracuse red-zone problems.
Both have had their moments this season, but neither offense is playing with much consistency. Louisville has struggled on the offensive line and has had problems holding onto the football. Its nine lost fumbles are the most in the ACC this season.
Syracuse, meanwhile, has racked up the yards -- ranking No. 4 in the league in total offense. But the Orange rank No. 13 in the ACC in scoring offense, averaging 25.5 points per game. Syracuse cannot afford the same mistakes in the red zone that have plagued it the last two games -- Louisville not only has the top defense in the ACC, it has the No. 2 red-zone defense in the conference as well.
Defense may very well be where the game is determined. Last week, Syracuse forced five turnovers against Notre Dame; Louisville has forced 13 turnovers -- including 10 interceptions. Syracuse has 13 sacks on the season; Louisville has 19. Lorenzo Mauldin has four of them.
“Lorenzo Mauldin is very active with his hands, probably one of the best hand-fighting pass rushers that I’ve seen in college,” Hickey said. “He’s an amazing player. I’m very high on him in terms of the player he is, and it will be a good challenge for the offense line.”
There could be one more intangible at play. Syracuse always does well on nationally-televised, non-Saturday games in the Carrier Dome. Overall, Syracuse is 4-1 since 2011 in home games played on Friday.