The 2004 season was less than 20 minutes old and Syracuse was already staring at rock bottom. Purdue quarterback Kyle Orton was playing pinball with the Orange defense and there was no end in sight: 14-0 ... 20-0 ... 27-0 ... 34-0 ...
"It went on forever," Syracuse safety Diamond Ferri said. "I'm out there thinking, 'What's happening to us?'"
Before Ferri could answer, time had already elapsed. He and his teammates were on the wrong end of a coyote ugly blowout: Purdue 51, Syracuse 0.
Ferri had to pinch himself. Hard.
The critics attacked en masse after the Purdue debacle. Coach Paul Pasqualoni took beatings on talk shows, in print and on message boards.
The ever-growing legion of bashers offered to hand-deliver Pasqualoni to Anywhere, USA. Just as long as he wasn't in Syracuse anymore.
Pasqualoni had already riled fans with back-to-back sixth-place finishes in the Big East, a 10-14 mark the previous two seasons and mid-level recruiting classes. The opening-game blowout just fueled the fire.
"Times were tough," Ferri said.
Things didn't get much better after a 31-10 loss at Virginia just four weeks later. And, they got even worse in Week 5 when upwards of 10,000 Carrier Dome fans raced to the exits after a fumble gave Rutgers the ball at the Orange 21 with less than four minutes to play.
Syracuse trailed 31-27 at the time and seemed destined for its third Big East loss to the Scarlet Knights since 1999. Rutgers was 3-33 in league play during that span.
"We had to find it in us to win that one," Ferri said.
The Orange did just that, scoring 14 points in the waning moments for a 41-31 comeback.
Some believe Pasqualoni's fate would have been sealed right then and there had he lost, considering athletic director Jake Crouthamel had already publicly laid out expectations for the program and even forced an assistant coaching demotion.
To his credit, Pasqualoni has maintained his composure through it all.
"We try to keep things in perspective with regard to trying to be educators, and being in the business of winning football games," said Pasqualoni, who owns a 104-57-1 record, with three Big East championships and eight bowl trips in 14 years. "When you go to bed at night, you want to know you did the right thing. We're not going to make everybody happy, but that's the dilemma of big-time college athletics."
That said, the 14-year veteran continues to move forward, continues to prepare like he always has. His Orange are playing .500 football and they're coming off a near-upset of Florida State at the Carrier Dome. A fumble by star tailback Walter Reyes inside the Seminoles 5 was the difference in that 17-13 loss.
"That game is history," center Matt Tarullo said. "It's on to the Big East. This is when it all matters."
Syracuse gets an opportunity to regroup Thursday night in front of a national television audience. WVU enters with a No. 14 ranking, but the Orange have seen better. All three of their losses have come against top-10 teams, two of which occurred on the road (Purdue and Virginia). Nobody in the Big East has come close to playing the killer schedule Syracuse has faced.
The Orange and the Mountaineers are the lone remaining undefeated teams in the Big East, albeit at 1-0.
"The games before this one were set-up games, and we're better for it," Tarullo said. "It's not like we lost to easy teams. We played some of the best out there. The bottom line is, if we beat West Virginia, we're in the driver's seat in the conference. What more could you ask for?"
"This could catapult us," Ferri said. "A win puts us right where we want to be."
Regardless of what happens Thursday night, Ferri and Tarullo realize Pasqualoni will continue to take criticism. Of course, it's not something they agree with.
"I came here because he's a great coach, and he's still a great coach," Ferri said. Added Tarullo: "He's a class act on and off the field."
Pasqualoni appreciates the support, but prefers to insulate his players from the critics. He's been around long enough to take the bullets.
"It doesn't wear us down," he said of the scrutiny. "I've learned over the years that when people criticize you, you have to sort it out. Some is totally unwarranted and other criticism has good points to it. So, you sort out the malicious stuff and ignore it, and you take the other stuff that can help and you try to improve. Nobody likes to hear it, but you just have to be mentally tough enough to keep focused and try to win games."
Joe Bendel covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.