- Brian Bennett, College Football
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Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones tries to keep his football and school identities separate. He doesn't wear athletic gear when he's going to class.
But his backpack has his number -- 99 -- on it. And after Saturday's win at South Florida, a lot of his fellow students didn't need much more information to know exactly who he was. Jones said more students than ever stopped him on the quad this week and said, "Nice game, Chandler."
"We're not being ignored anymore," center Ryan Bartholomew said. "People look at us and there's a sense of pride now."
It's getting harder and harder to ignore these Orange. They are 4-1 for the first time since 1999, and their rare road conference victory has them tied atop the Big East standings after one week.
For a program that hasn't sniffed the postseason or won more than four games in a season since 2004, this is all heady stuff. This week brings probably the biggest moment for Syracuse football since the Paul Pasqualoni era. Preseason league favorite Pittsburgh comes to town for what could be a sold-out, Oranged-out Carrier Dome.
Jones has changed his Facebook and Twitter profile pictures to the school's "Orange Out" logo.
"I'm trying to promote it as well," Jones said. "We're hungry. We want the dome filled."
Second-year head coach Doug Marrone is starting to deliver on his promise to make Syracuse football exciting again. If you go back to last year's 31-13 upset of Rutgers, his team is 5-2 in its past seven games and undefeated at home. Marrone said the greatest improvement from last season happened off the field.
"There's better trust," he said. "Trust between the coaches and players and between the players and players. It's just believing in what we're trying to do here and trying to accomplish, and you see that carrying over to the field."
Jones said the players still were adjusting to the new coaching staff last year but began to see how their plan worked, especially in that Rutgers win.
"The defense at times would be guessing because we didn't know the playbook as well," he said. "I'm not saying we didn't trust the coaches, but sometimes you'd be questioning the calls. But once you know that your coaches are putting you in the best position to make a play, that trust becomes a huge thing."
The aggressive, hard-hitting Syracuse defense led by coordinator Scott Shafer has allowed fewer than 15 points per game and did not give up an offensive touchdown in the 13-9 win over the Bulls last week. The offense is also playing with a lot of confidence behind sophomore starting quarterback Ryan Nassib. That was evident when it mounted a 98-yard, fourth-quarter drive to take the lead for good last week.
"When that drive started, we all looked at each other and said, 'We're going to do this,'" Bartholomew said. "Then we grinded it out."
Marrone has tried to stay low key this week despite the growing enthusiasm around the program. In his postgame speech at South Florida, he told the team it needed to keep things going and not get too pleased with itself. The schedule has been favorable for the Orange to start the season, but the next three games -- Pittsburgh, at West Virginia, at Cincinnati -- look considerably tougher.
"I told them again that we have to fight and scratch every week to be a competitive football team," Marrone said. "All the way through our schedule there are good football teams, and teams that have beaten us pretty soundly in the last couple of years."
The Syracuse players might be enjoying more back-slapping on campus these days. But they can't let that distract from what's in front of them.
"Our goal is still to go to a bowl game," Bartholomew said. "Until we reach that point, we have to stay focused with our eyes on the prize."