BY JOHN KEKIS
Just when it seemed Syracuse was over the hump, the Orange self-destructed again and rejoined a dubious Big East crowd that also includes South Florida, Connecticut, Pitt and Temple.
With the season winding down, dreams of the postseason are getting oh-so-dim for these programs.
While Rutgers, Louisville and Cincinnati orchestrate memorable seasons in the ever-changing Big East, the beat goes on for these mediocre teams that have struggled to find consistency as the landscape of the league begins to turn.
Doug Marrone’s Orange (4-5) have a glimmer of hope, needing to win two of the last three games. For UConn and USF, both 3-6, there is no margin for error – they have to win out to reach the six victories needed to become bowl eligible.
Paul Chryst, in his first year at Pitt, is in the same boat as Marrone. The Panthers are 4-5, have three games left and might be able to carry over some momentum from their near upset of No. 3 Notre Dame last week. Pitt has won two of the last three, and faces UConn on Friday.
Meanwhile, Temple (3-5) is sort of in a league of its own. After rejoining the Big East in March, the Owls were left with only 11 games on this season’s schedule. They’ve been trying to schedule a 12th opponent, and a December game at Hawaii remains a possibility.
Without the extra contest, it’s wait till next year for the Owls. So, just getting to a 12th is a big goal.
“I think it would be tremendous for us to have another at the end,” Temple coach Steve Addazio said. “I don’t know if we will or we won’t. We’d love another chance. It means more practice. It means another game for a young football team. It means another opponent to fight for a win. That would be a great opportunity if something could happen to create that. We would embrace that.”
Temple’s season has gone south because the Owls also can’t seem to embrace the ball. They lost four fumbles, three in the second half, in a 45-17 loss at unbeaten Louisville on Saturday after playing the No. 11 Cardinals to a standstill in the opening half.
Three straight losses have put a damper on the season for Temple. Picked to finish last in the conference, the Owls started strong with wins over UConn and South Florida and led then-No. 19 Rutgers 10-0 at halftime before folding.
“I feel like we’re ahead of schedule,” Addazio said. “I don’t think we’re far off. (We have to) think big, focus small.”
Syracuse’s up-and-down season is down again for the moment after a 35-24 loss at Cincinnati. The Orange, leaving for the ACC next season, was seeking its third straight conference win, something not done in 11 years.
Instead, Syracuse lost two fumbles that set up touchdowns, missed a field goal and had another blocked, was whistled for a dozen penalties for 104 yards, and Brandon Reddish dropped an interception that was a pick-six for the taking.
Back to the drawing board one more time.
“What’s frustrating is the mistakes that we make that really put us in a tough position to win,” Marrone said. “It’s happened through the course of the season. It’s been very tough for us to overcome those mistakes.”
Syracuse (3-2 Big East) is alone in fourth place in the conference and already has lost to two of the three teams on top of the conference – Rutgers and Cincinnati – and hosts top-dog Louisville (9-0) Saturday.
The Orange finish the season with road games at Missouri and Temple. With the 11th-ranked Cardinals coming to town, Marrone isn’t looking too far ahead, that’s for sure.
“I always look at it from week to week,” he said. “I’ve never really looked at it from the overall picture because you can’t. I think it distracts you from the task at hand.”
South Florida finally broke out of its Big East funk, beating Connecticut 13-6 on Saturday for its first conference win of the season after four losses. That also snapped a school-record six-game losing streak. USF entered the UConn game as the only FBS team without an interception and had two picks in the fourth quarter. That was the good news.
The bad? Standout quarterback B.J. Daniels suffered what is likely a season-ending ankle injury. Daniels was hurt on a 15-yard run inside the UConn 10 in the fourth quarter.
And then there’s UConn, which is 0-4 in Big East play and has not scored a point in the fourth quarter in its last five games. And the Huskies continued a familiar pattern for all these teams fighting to make the postseason – they turned the ball over on their final three possessions against USF. Not a good omen as the team preps for Pitt, another team bolting for the ACC next year.
“We still have three pretty meaningful games to play, so obviously to me, there’s still a lot of football to play and I’m pretty optimistic that we can do this,” UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said. “Obviously, we’re disappointed, but that hasn’t diminished what we are doing.”
Nobody is giving up.
“A lot of teams would just go into the tank, but we’re trying to stay together,” Huskies linebacker Jory Johnson said. “We have three games left, so we can make this a positive ending or a negative ending.”
Associated Press Writer Pat Eaton-Robb in Hartford, Conn. contributed to this report.