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Planning for success: Syracuse

9/29/2014

When Scott Shafer met with his team last Tuesday, he did not harp on Syracuse's home loss to Maryland so much as what lied ahead for the Orange. The ACC scheduling gods seemed to do the second-year ACC program little favor, after all, with the slate in front of it.

From (a previously scheduled) game with Notre Dame this past Saturday, to Louisville and Florida State visiting the Carrier Dome in the next two weeks, to a trip to Clemson at the end of the month, Syracuse has its hands full as it tries to build off last year's surprising 7-6 campaign in Shafer's debut season.

But the second-year head coach has taken a big-picture approach with his program, now 2-2 after a 31-15 loss to the Fighting Irish at MetLife Stadium. And Shafer is hoping it serves them well, especially with ACC newcomer Louisville awaiting this Friday night.

"How many times have you guys as a kid dreamt about being in this situation?" Shafer told ESPN.com, recalling what he asked his players last week. "You guys realize, 'Hey you're living the dream right now.' The daily grind can numb us and put us in a situation where we're not always in touch with our emotional state of 'Hey, we're doing exactly what we wanted to do ever since we were little, when we first put the pads on, and now it's right here, right now. It's real.'

"We're living in real time and we're living that dream, so let's go have a blast. Let's enjoy it. Let's make it a great dream. Let's go after it. Let's not worry about things the outsiders will ask us questions about. Let's focus in on each other and playing the best football that we can."

Syracuse is coming off a performance that can best be described as uneven: The Orange forced five Irish turnovers and scored a defensive touchdown, but also fell victim to 25 straight completions from Everett Golson. They failed to establish much of a rhythm offensively, but also were a highly-questionable spike/fumble call by the officials from entering halftime down just one possession, which would have given the second half a far different tone.

"After these first four games I know that we can compete with anybody, I will tell you that," running back Prince-Tyson Gulley said after the loss. "We just have to execute what we are doing. I do not think there is any team out there that is just so much better than us. I don’t see that out there. We really have to go back to work and go to the drawing boards and do what we have to do."

With a short turnaround, Shafer and Syracuse could take a cue from what they did in 2012. Back then, a 9-0, 11th-ranked Louisville team led by Teddy Bridgewater marched into the Carrier Dome and received a rude awakening. The Orange defense -- whose coordinator at the time was Shafer -- forced two turnovers, completely negated the Cardinals' ground game and watched Louisville's perfect season go up in flames en route to a 45-26 Syracuse win.

That contest was two years ago, two head coaches ago (Louisville's Charlie Strong's now at Texas, Syracuse's Doug Marrone's now with the Bills) and one old conference ago (both teams exited the Big East, which is now the American Athletic Conference). But Louisville hardly enters Friday as high as it did in November 2012. While Bridgewater was off dazzling in his first NFL start Sunday, the status of quarterback Will Gardner remains uncertain after he suffered a left knee injury in a Sept. 20 win at FIU. True freshman Reggie Bonnafon replaced him Saturday and was so-so in a win over Wake Forest, which sacked Bonnafon four times and pressured him on three other occasions.

The Orange will look to do the same regardless of who's under center for the Cardinals, who have surrendered 16 sacks through five games and who have been bailed out by a defense that ranks fifth nationally with 13 takeaways.

For Shafer, another primetime opportunity -- and the stiff tests afterward -- is something for his kids to get excited about.

"Now we're in it, man. We're in that environment that we all wanted to be in," Shafer said. "That's what it's all about. So let's enjoy the process. Let's have fun. Understand everything's really overrated except for playing the play in front of us, and let's see if we have the discipline and the pride to play at the highest level possible with the most effort and the most physicality that we can bring to the table, and let the cards fall where they may. But enjoy playing the game; that's what it's all about."