INSIDE SLANT: Syracuse is for real

Syracuse has freed itself from the doldrums.<br><br> Picked to finish sixth by many publications at the start of the year, the football team has since collected three wins and stands unofficially at No. 40 in the country according to the most recent Associated Press poll.

A win at Virginia Tech on Oct. 11 would almost certainly guarantee a spot for the Orangemen in the top 25.

"I think we proved we can contend with (top 25) teams," tight end Lenny Cusumano said.

The difference this year seems to be come from the leadership. Rich Scanlon has successfully molded the defense to his own image, resembling his Bergen Catholic high school days, when his team senior year went 12-0.

"We've all played together a long time and we're all very comfortable with each other," linebacker Rich Scanlon said.

The Syracuse defense has held opponents to just 10.5 points over the past two games as opposed to the 47 and 30 points North Carolina and Louisville ran up on Syracuse, respectively.

"Senior leadership is starting to rub off on the younger guys," Scanlon said. "They are starting to understand that the way you perform during the week is the way you perform on Saturday and it's working."

Case and point: Thomas Whitfield. The cornerback wasn't even listed on the depth chart at the start of the season. But the sophomore tied his career-best eight tackles in Saturday's 34-7 win over Toledo. His performance earned him Big East Conference Player of the Week.

"What I like about the defense is that they're playing very hard," Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni said, "and they're trying awfully hard to do the right thing."

Another difference has been the pass rush.

Virtually non-existent in the first two games, Syracuse managed to rush and hurry UCF's Ryan Schneider and then went on to record its first sack of the season against Bruce Gradkowski.

The pass rush has lessened the burden on the secondary, and the defense – once the laughing stock of the Big East – has now turned some eyes. It frustrated an offense that had scored 35 points in an upset of then-No. 9 Pittsburgh.

"The Syracuse defense stopped us, said Toledo coach Tom Amstutz. "They're on a roll and look like a very good team to me."

The defense has also looked better because of the running offense, which has eaten up clock and wore down opposing defenses.

Though Damien Rhodes has missed time do to an ankle sprain, Walter Reyes has had a breakout season – worthy of Heisman banter.

Reyes' 170.2 rushing yards a game and 15.5 points per contest have put him atop all Division I-A backs.

"Walter Reyes is a great running back," Amstutz said. "He has patience and picks his holes, and then just takes off."

Syracuse can only hope its season can do the same.

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