SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Belief without evidence has been head coach Dino Babers' mantra since he took the job to lead Syracuse and turn the program around. That mantra can no longer be uttered after what transpired inside the Carrier Dome on Saturday.
One week after falling at Wake Forest, the Syracuse Orange (3-4. 1-2) pulled off a 31-17 upset of the 17th ranked Virginia Tech Hokies (4-2, 2-1). It was their first win against a ranked opponent since November 10, 2012 when they knocked off Louisville.
"“The biggest thing about this win is that anytime you take over a new program, you’re trying to get everybody to buy in, to work as one," Babers said. "No matter how hard everyone wants to do that, there’s always the nay-sayers, there’s always those ones that say ‘Hey, maybe we should be doing it the way the old team did it, or the way old coaches did it.’
"It’s always that way, until you get that one win that solidifies you, that brings you together, that hardship that brings the family closer together. That’s what happened today. We’re now a family, we’re Ohana, we’re la familia. Now, we’re five fingers that make a fist and now we can go out and play some Orange football.”
And play Orange football they did. It was a complete effort. A convincing win where all three phases had major contributions in the victory. It started with the offense, who gave Syracuse momentum early when Eric Dungey hit Ervin Philips on a 58-yard pass up the seam. It continued when the best defensive effort of the season forced three-and-outs on two of Virginia Tech's first three possessions.
Special teams did their part with a blocked extra point, excellent kickoff and punt coverage play and even a Brisly Estime punt return to set up Syracuse's final touchdown that put the game away.
"We practiced that play on Tuesday and Wednesday, so the coaches had confidence in me," Strickland said. "I had confidence in myself, and my teammates had confidence in me. And give (Brisly Estime) the ball and he can take it all the way, so it worked out.”
This Syracuse win had everything. The Orange controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball for large stretches of the game against a team that, on paper, was more talented. Against a team that, coming in, was playing as well as anyone in the country. A team that had some considering them a dark horse playoff team.
Even when the Hokies took the momentum by tying the game early in the fourth quarter, Syracuse responded. A long, 17 play, 75-yard drive gave Syracuse the lead back. A three-and-out forced by the defense was answered by another lengthy scoring drive from the offense.
There was toughness. Not just by the players in the trenches. Not just by a defensive line that pressured, frustrated and harassed Virginia Tech quarterback Jérod Evans throughout. Not just by a team answering the bell when a supposed superior team came storming back to take the momentum.
But by their starting quarterback, who briefly exited the game with an apparent knee injury. He missed only one play, and battled through the rest of the game to lead his team to a win.
“He had guts," Babers said. "It was real gutsy. We need him, and we need him healthy, and certain times we’re willing to put him at risk a little bit. You have to do some untraditional things to move the ball versus people who are really, really good, and this Virginia Tech team is really, really good.
"Anytime your quarterback is out there battling and he’s hurt, bruised, bleeding and he’s coming back into the game, it really makes you check your whole card about your hours. It makes you put your lips together and just play, stop complaining because everybody’s out here battling.”
This win wasn't just about the 31 points or the 561 yards of total offense or the 100 plays run or the two turnovers forced or Eric Dungey throwing for over 300 yards and rushing for 100 more. It was about Syracuse playing Dino Babers football. Giving Syracuse football the identity it has sorely lacked in years past. About changing it from "belief without evidence" to "belief with evidence."
Saturday's win was about sending a message that, even if there are more ups and downs this season, Syracuse football is in the right hands. That Syracuse football is on its way back.