Against a true Heisman contender in Central Florida quarterback Ryan Schneider Saturday, the SU defense was up to the challenge, helping the Orangemen to a 38-14 victory.
"We knew that he (Schneider) was going to try and throw the ball all over us," senior left end Josh Thomas said. "We wanted to keep the ball out of Schneider's hands and give the ball back to the offense."
An intense, hard-nosed, blitzing Orangeman defense pressured the nation's 26th ranked offense, forcing the immobile Schneider out of his comfort zone in the pocket, leading to some errant passes.
Schneider, who was 23-of-35 with three touchdowns against Virginia Tech and threw for a school-record and career-high 490 yards in last week's 32-29 win against Florida Atlantic, was 16-of-25 for 284 yards and a touchdown, but threw three costly interceptions.
The much-scrutinized young Orangeman secondary, which came into the game allowing a Big-East worst 300 yards a game through the air, frustrated Schneider and the Knight Offense.
With the Knights driving in the first after a second touchdown by Syracuse running back Walter Reyes extended the lead to 14-0, Orangeman cornerback Steve Gregory stepped in front of Schneider's third down pass for the interception.
Linebacker Kelvin Smith – who replaced the injured Jameel Dumas in North Carolina and made a goal line stand to preserve a Syracuse victory in triple overtime – made the most of his playing time yet again. He helped spoil UCF's strong field possession with seven minutes left in the second quarter with an interception at the Syracuse five-yard line.
Gregory recorded 10 tackles, two for losses, and broke up three passes. It was one of the best games of Gregory's career, said head coach Paul Pasqualoni.
"He played well in kickoff coverage and made some big tackles in the open field," Pasqualoni said. "We saw a glimpse of the type of corner we think Steve can be."
Gregory helped preserve a 21-14 Syracuse lead in the third quarter, knocking down a half back pass in the end zone on fourth down. The Syracuse offense followed with an 11-play, 59-yard drive, stretching the lead to 10, after a Colin Barber field goal.
"It was a short yardage situation, but I kept my eyes on my man and I saw him going deep," Gregory said. "We had some big plays today and that's what happens when everybody is on the same page."
Strong safety Troy Swittenberg got into the action in the fourth, intercepting a pass and returning the ball to the UCF one-yard line. Syracuse free safety Anthony Smith's fumble recovery with less than three minutes in the fourth sealed the victory.
"People have blamed the secondary for our problems, but it's a double-edged sword," defensive tackle Louis Gachelin said. "We have to get some of the blame for not getting to the quarterback."
Although Syracuse, which has not recorded a sack through three games, did not get to Schneider, the Orangemen kept the UCF quarterback under siege for four quarters.
He orchestrated a 12-play, 62-yard scoring drive capped by a one-yard pass to Dee Brown at the end of the second quarter following a fake field goal resulted in a first down. Schneider led Central Florida down the field to start the third, culminating in an Alex Haynes touchdown run to tie the game at 14. They would not find the end zone again.
The only thing Schneider and UCF saw more of than Reyes in the end zone was middle linebacker Rich Scanlon in pursuit. Scanlon, who recorded a career high with 16 tackles against Louisville, had 13.
"We got away with some things in the first game, but they bit us in the rear last week and today we knew what we were up against," said middle linebacker Rich Scanlon, who leads the nation in tackles. "We paid attention to the details a lot better and they did everything we anticipated. The defense worked today like we thought it could."
SU defense finds its stride
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