R.J. Anderson remembers Miami. He remembers standing in the Carrier Dome last season and watching the Hurricanes run away with a 26-0 dismantling. He remembers an anemic offensive effort.
And most of all, he remembers being embarrassed.
So, when Syracuse travels to Miami next week, Anderson and the rest of the Orangemen want to erase last year's performance while adding to an eight-game winning streak. The No. 1 Hurricanes stand in the way, though.
"Last year they embarrassed me," said Anderson after Syracuse defeated West Virginia, 24-13 on Saturday. "So this year, we want to go out there and just play. And this year we have something to play for."
That something Anderson speaks of is the Big East conference championship. Currently, the Orangemen and the Hurricanes sit at 5-0 in the Big East, which means there will be more than postseason bowl implications on the line next weekend.
Not many people give Syracuse a chance against the vaunted Hurricanes. But not many people gave them a chance to sit at 8-2 following two season-opening losses. That's why you play the games, Syracuse captain Kyle Johnson said.
So, when a reporter asked Johnson if Syracuse could score enough points to beat Miami next weekend, this was his response.
"Can Miami score enough to beat us?" he asked, a sly smile creeping across his face. "It goes both ways. They scored 18 points (Saturday against Boston College), and they had to get the last one in the fourth quarter. It's probably going to be the game to watch. If I didn't have to play Miami next week, basically I would turn on the TV and watch that game."
If he could, he'd see the top team in the nation. A team that sports future NFL players at nearly every position, a team that just broke the Big East record with 15 consecutive victories. And a team that Syracuse hasn't beat since a Donovan McNabb-led squad stomped the Canes in 1998.
Led by Heisman Trophy candidate Ken Dorsey, Miami has been outscoring its opponents 40.6-9.9 this season. Dorsey has thrown for 2,004 yards and 15 touchdowns, setting the Miami record for career touchdown passes in the process. Five of his receivers have caught at least 10 passes. The offense converts on nearly half its third down opportunities.
Complimenting the passing arsenal is a rushing unit that averages 195 yards per game. Clinton Portis averages 104.9 yards per game and a host of other chip in from the backfield. And that's just the offense.
The defense has forced 31 turnovers, while allowing only 131 yards on the ground and only four rushing touchdowns. It's also nailed opposing quarterbacks for 26 sacks. Senior safety Edward Reed leads Miami with seven interceptions.
Miami beat out of conference opponents Florida State, Troy State and Penn State. Normally, that would be a daunting out-of-conference slate, but this year it chalks up to not having really been tested. Still, the Hurricanes 325 points in eight games has been impressive.
It all adds up to …
"Everybody's been talking about them," Johnson said. "We've been talking about them since the beginning of the year. They're filled with great athletes, very fast, very mobile. They're a good football team. Are they ranked No. 1 in the country? They deserve it. But at the same point, they're going to have to prove it next week because they've got to play us. If every game was decided by ranking, you wouldn't have to play them. You've got to play every game."
And while everybody's been talking about Miami, Syracuse has flown low under the college football radar screen while building an identically unblemished conference record. Fans are returning in full force to the Carrier Dome. Head coach Paul Pasqualoni is off the proverbial hot seat. And people enjoy Syracuse football again.
But there's still doubts. SU's free safety Quentin Harris hears them.
"It feels good, but we still get a lot of people give us excuses why we won as opposed to reasons why we won," he said. "Everybody will say, ‘They came out flat and didn't play SU hard,' or this that and the third. They're still not believers yet. So we have to make them believers."
They can do that by winning football games with the same formula instilled since two-a-days in August. First and foremost, the Orangemen say, turnovers are the key.
"Phenomenal," said defensive coordinator Chris Rippon when describing SU's turnover performance this season. "It was something that was addressed the last two years, last year in particular. We spent a great deal of time and the kids have taken it to heart."
Particularly that Freeney guy. He's posted 46 tackles (26 for a loss), an NCAA single season record 16.5 sacks, forced seven fumbles and recovered three fumbles. Freeney goes for the strip first, Rippon said, an unselfish move for a position player where sacks rank of the utmost important.
And he's leading what could be the most surprising defense in the country. Clifton Smith has healed and is back to his old self. Willie Ford shut down two of the Big East's best receivers in Antonio Bryant and Andre Davis. And the defensive line has been solid all season. But Freeney is the catalyst for the effort.
"Dwight's amazing," fellow lineman Josh Thomas said. "I think what everyone else thinks, except I get to play with him and be with him all the time. I'm in constant amazement. He's just an amazing player."
The Orangemen say they are not ready to play Miami tomorrow. They need a week to look at film, analyze, heal and prepare. But they remain most proud of the fact they didn't look past West Virginia with a potential Big-East-championship bout looming down the line.
Now, they say, it's time to prove the country wrong again.
"I think Miami is taking notice, but they're not afraid," Smith said. "They know what they have to do. Plain and simple, we have to go down there and do what we've been doing."