NCF Nation: Mike Holmes

Something was missing for Syracuse after the Orange won at West Virginia last week.

[+] EnlargeSyracus Celebration
AP Photo/Jeff GentnerDelone Carter and Syracuse have won three of their past five conference games.
Sure, the players celebrated in the locker room and enjoyed the upset victory. But this was no surprise party. No one screamed, "Oh my god, I can't believe we did it" afterward.

Could it be that Syracuse is getting used to winning big games now?

"There was a different sense in the locker room after the West Virginia game," head coach Doug Marrone said. "People talk about changing the culture, and it's not really from the coaches. It's when players start to say, 'OK, listen, we won this game. We're going to enjoy it, but we know we have to come back and work hard and let it go.'"

Sometimes the final hurdle a program must clear when it abandons years of losing is dealing with success. Syracuse registered its first big victory this season at South Florida three weeks ago, beating the Bulls for the first time ever. The following week, the Orange returned home amid all kinds of back-slapping and enthusiasm -- and they promptly got blown out 45-14 by Pitt on homecoming.

The players refuse to say that they lost focus or got carried away from the USF win. But they readily acknowledge handling last week's victory differently.

"After the South Florida game, everyone was very excited," senior defensive back Mike Holmes said. "After the West Virginia game we were like, 'OK, we won. Time for the next game.' We're getting accustomed to winning around here."

As well they should. The Orange (5-2, 2-1 Big East) have won three of their past five conference games dating to last year, after all. They'll look to keep that positive momentum going this Saturday at Cincinnati, another team they've never beaten in league play.

In fact, the series with the Bearcats hasn't been all that close in recent years. Syracuse has lost by 21, 20 and 21 points in the past three meetings, respectively, while Cincinnati has scored an average of nearly 37 points per win.

The Bearcats have the league's best passing attack and the Big East's top two receivers, which could pose problems for the Orange defense. Syracuse has been burned by good passing teams this season, giving up four touchdown passes to both Washington's Jake Locker and Pitt's Tino Sunseri in their only two losses, both blowouts. Scott Shafer's defense loves to blitz, and if the other team can pick that up and throw deep, then things can get ugly.

"It's definitely going to come down to covering and getting pressure on the quarterback," Holmes said. "I believe we have our work cut out for us again."

But Syracuse might have caught a break with the injury to Bearcats quarterback Zach Collaros. He suffered a bruised knee last week against South Florida and is questionable for Saturday. Shafer and his charges would rather throw their confusing pressure schemes at backup Chazz Anderson and see what he can do.

Either way, these Orange will arrive in Nippert Stadium as a confident bunch. And if they come away with yet another road victory, they will act like they've been there before. Because now they actually have.

"We've got to make winning a habit," linebacker Doug Hogue said. "For all of us seniors, we have to make sure the younger guys know what it's like to win and what it takes to win. We've got to keep pushing."
It's time to get back to our post-spring rankings of each Big East position group. A lot of teams have question marks in their secondaries heading into this summer; let's look at how they stand in comparison to one another:

[+] EnlargeSands
AP Photo/Jeff GentnerRobert Sands snagged five interceptions last season.
1. West Virginia: The Mountaineers play five defensive backs in their 3-3-5 alignment and should be well stocked for 2010. Safety Robert Sands should compete for league defensive player of the year honors if he continues his rapid development, while senior Sidney Glover is an experienced playmaker at one of the other safety spots. West Virginia needs Brandon Hogan to rediscover his form and for Keith Tandy to keep improving, and this could be one of the team's strongest units.

2. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights lost the best cornerback in the Big East when Devin McCourty took his skills to the NFL, but I still like the group that's returning. Joe Lefeged should step up and assume McCourty's leadership role as a senior safety, while Khaseem Greene looks ready to become a front-line safety. David Rowe is a solid corner, and either Brandon Bing or Logan Ryan should fill the other spot. The Scarlet Knights have a lot of talented young players here to provide quality depth, as well.

3. Syracuse: The Orange officially have five returning starters in the secondary because of injuries last year, and several players gained valuable experience during 2009. There's a good mixture of veteran leadership with guys like seniors Mike Holmes, Da'Mon Merkerson and Max Suter as well as rising stars like Shamarko Thomas and Phillip Thomas.

4. Pittsburgh: Antwuan Reed helped answer a big question with a strong spring at cornerback. The other corner spot will likely be filled by either junior college transfer Saheed Imoru or Buddy Jackson, with Ricky Gary around to add depth. The safety position should be in good shape when Dom DeCicco and Andrew Taglianetti return from their injuries, while Jarred Holley established himself as a dependable safety last year.

5. South Florida: The Bulls lost a pair of draft picks in Nate Allen and Jerome Murphy and have some young players moving into key roles this season. The good news is those youngsters have talent. The key will be whether Quenton Washington and Kayvon Webster can hold down the cornerback spots.

6. Cincinnati: There's healthy competition in the secondary for the Bearcats, who increasingly gave up big plays in the passing game as the 2009 season wore on. Dominique Battle, Camerron Cheatham, Chris Williams and Reuben Johnson all vied for playing time at corner this spring. Drew Frey is a steady safety. The group needs to make more plays than it did a year ago but should embrace a more aggressive scheme this year.

7. Connecticut: The Huskies ranked last in pass defense last season and lost two senior stalwarts from the secondary. The defensive backfield was in disarray at times this spring. The return of Blidi Wreh-Wilson from his shoulder injury this summer should help out the cornerback spot with Dwayne Gratz. Jerome Junior should be solid at one safety spot, while Kijuan Dabney is trying to win the other job after moving from linebacker. The Huskies are counting on a lot of young players to improve quickly before the season begins.

8. Louisville: The Cardinals had so much trouble finding playmakers in the secondary this spring that running back Darius Ashley moved to corner to help out. Johnny Patrick is one of the league's better cornerbacks but needs help in the defensive backfield. The healthy return of safety Terence Simien would provide a boost, but this remains a trouble spot heading into the fall.

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