It is hard enough to prepare to play the No. 2 team in the country.
Imagine having to play that team off a heartbreaking last-minute loss that featured a questionable call that impacted the outcome.
Such is the task facing Syracuse this Saturday, as it takes on No. 2 USC at MetLife Stadium. While the 42-41 loss to Northwestern was itself disappointing, coach Doug Marrone is not hanging his head or feeling discouraged. In fact, he feels better about his team after this loss than he did after opening the season with an overtime win over Wake Forest last season.
"I explained that there were some things -- even though we won the game last year -- that I had a major concern about the direction we were headed," Marrone said. "I didn’t feel that way about this team. We worked extremely hard. I’m very encouraged about this football team and that was my message to them. We are heading in the right direction."
His quarterback encouraged him first and foremost. Ryan Nassib had an unbelievable day throwing the football, going 45-of-66 for 482 yards — all school records — with four touchdown passes, to rally the Orange from a 22-point third-quarter deficit to a six-point lead with 2:40 left in the fourth quarter.
Nassib also ran the ball for 30 yards on 12 carries, on pace to shatter his single-season rushing high of 39. His 512 yards of total offense were the best by an FBS player in the opening week of the season. Consider some of the other eye-popping numbers from a team that generally does not produce this much offense:
Syracuse had 33 first downs, and the first time since Nov. 24, 2001, against Boston College (30) the Orange had at least 30 ﬁrst downs.
The Orange totaled 596 yards of offense, topping the 500-yard mark for the first time since gaining 518 yards in a 49-47 triple-overtime win against North Carolina in 2003. It was also Syracuse's highest yardage total since Nov. 9, 2002 against Virginia Tech (604 yards), a game that also went three overtimes.
Syracuse ran 95 total plays (66 pass, 29 run).
"I knew what our offense could do and what it was capable of, what the skill players and O-line were capable of, so it's no shock to me," Nassib said on a call with reporters. "Going back, learning from those mistakes only makes us more confident going into this game."
What also helps is that Syracuse played USC last season, so the intimidation factor is gone. Though the Trojans won handily 38-17, there is no "mystique" about playing them.
"There’s a little less intimidation with the fact that they are USC," Nassib said. "At the end of the day, we’re playing football. Any given day, a team can be beat regardless of who they are."
Defensively, one major sign of encouragement was the pass rush. Syracuse recorded five sacks. That only happened once all last season. So there are some good signs. But there is no question Syracuse is in the middle of an extremely challenging start to the season with back-to-back games against opponents from major conferences.
Getting a win, however improbable it may seem, would be monumental.
"We’ve been working on getting this program back on top and that would be a great way to start," linebacker Marquis Spruill said.