– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
SYRACUSE, NY — For three seasons running, walking through the double doors adjacent to Carrier Dome stadium control and attending a Syracuse University football postgame press conference has oftentimes resembled sitting front row at a poetry slam, with full-time head coach/wordsmith Dino Babers seamlessly dropping steady doses of metaphors and tropes in explaining issues about his team that Xs and Os on a playbook simply cannot.
After leading his team to his latest signature win, Babers’ ebullience and gift of gab ratcheted up to stratospheric levels on Saturday, as he summed up a week that accurately could have been described as an emerging quarterback controversy by comparing those six days of preparation — and possible uncertainty — to race car driving, an all-time great race horse and can opening. “Babers-speak” can be a challenge to fully follow if one is not in tune and on his mental wavelength, but what continues to be left without doubt is that the Word of Babers — as well as his thrill-a-minute offense — has Syracuse fans gleefully spreading the word about the resurgence of a once-elite football program.
Another step in the footballing resurrection took place under the Carrier Dome roof on Saturday night, when the Orange, playing in their first Saturday prime time game in eight years, was near unstoppable on offense in defeating No. 22 NC State 51-41, a win that saw them become bowl eligible before the start of November and marked just the third time this century Syracuse has won six of its first eight games to a season.
Though the victory leaves the entire Central New York community in raptures, serious doubt about this year’s squad was allowed to creep in at this time last week – some of it of Babers’ own doing; In an overtime home win against a struggling North Carolina team, Babers took the bold step of benching star senior quarterback Eric Dungey during the fourth quarter in favor of redshirt freshman Tommy DeVito, a move that paid off handsomely when DeVito threw the game-tying touchdown pass in regulation with under two minutes remaining before securing the win with another touchdown pass to end the game in the second overtime.
The emerging era of good feelings was tempered by questions all this week about the psyche of Dungey, one of the cornerstones of the Orange revival, going into a matchup against, arguably, the second-best team in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
But as many are learning pretty quickly in the Empire State and beyond, when there’s doubt, there’s Dino. Dungey, who got the start tonight, played one of his best games in his illustrious career, throwing for 411 yards and three touchdowns while also scoring on a quarterback sneak in a turnover-free masterpiece. In a game he had to be near-perfect given the eventual shootout nature to it, Dungey delivered with the prime time spotlight shining the brightest on the signal-caller.
Cue the race horse. And the archery.
“How about Eric Dungey? Being challenged all week. He’s like Seabiscuit. You don’t have to whip him,
you just got to show him the whip,” Babers said. “You have to watch the movie to know what that means. You don’t have to whip him, you just got to show him the whip. Just an amazing game. I’ll tell you this, the whole week of practice with [Tommy] DeVito and Dungey was amazing. I’ve never seen two archers perform at such a high level the entire week with their competition. It was really, really something.”
Dungey repeatedly reached into his quiver and hit the bull’s-eye on the chests of his wide receivers all evening, completing seven of his first eight passes on his way to throwing for 204 yards and two touchdowns in just the first 15 minutes of the game. On Dungey’s first touchdown pass, an 82-yard strike down the middle of the field to Nykeim Johnson that gave Syracuse the lead for good at 10-7, Dungey and DeVito were seen celebrating together immediately afterward, running and jumping along Syracuse’s sideline attached at the hip.
“It’s one of those things about competition. Competition brings out the best in people, and Tommy did a great job last week getting that win for us,” said Dungey, whose 443 total yards tonight made him Syracuse’s all-time leader in total offense, passing Syracuse legend Donovan McNabb. “I was raised to be competitive, and I don’t want to say I was getting complacent, but I was getting too comfortable, and you can never get comfortable. I’m happy for Tommy. He’s pushing me, and I’m pushing him. It’s a great competition that we have.”
Dungey’s sentiment in that honest and diplomatic answer was echoed by Babers — with a little bit of can opening and performance cars included for effect.
“I opened that can because that can needed to be opened,” Babers said tonight about his decision last week to bench Dungey in favor of DeVito during crunch time against UNC. “If you have a race car, you can’t drive it like you’re driving Miss Daisy. We don’t need a chauffeur. We need a race car driver. We need guys who are going to be playing it on the edge.”
Both the Orange and Wolfpack offenses turned the Carrier Dome turf into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all night, combining for 1,102 yards with each racking up over 500 yards. Syracuse scored on its first three drives of the game and four of his first five — three of which went for touchdowns — in opening up a 24-7 first-quarter lead. NC State, after cutting its deficit to 27-20 by halftime, scored touchdowns on each of its first three drives of the second half to keep pace with the Orange, the last one coming on a 12-yard pass from quarterback Ryan Finley to receiver Kelvin Harmon to shave the Orange’s lead to 44-41 with 7:23 remaining.
“We needed to score on every possession because that’s the kind of game it was,” said NC State head coach Dave Doeren. “We were one possession away from winning that game. I’ve got to give Syracuse credit. Those kids played really well.”
On that possession in which NC State had a chance to take the lead late, gained after its defense forced the only punt in the second half by either team, Finley threw an incomplete pass and had a completion for no gain before, on third down, being hit on a throw to the left flat that was intercepted by linebacker Andrew Armstrong with 2:18 to go.
“The defense gave us a shot down the stretch there,” said Finley, who threw for 473 yards and three touchdowns to go along with the interception. “Down three, we had a drive to win it, and we just didn’t make it happen.”
In a sports-mad college town that has ached for the return of its football program to national relevance for the better part of the 20th century, the 2018 edition of the Orange are bowl eligible, at 6-2, for the first time in five seasons, and have a lot of season left to turn a likely winning season into a special one.
As he talked about taking a Power 5 school to a bowl game for the first time in his head coaching career, Babers admitted to something that might have floored many who know him well: he admitted that the cat had caught his tongue.
“It means a lot. I can still think back to the basketball game where I had to come out and speak to the community for the very first time. If you’re going to speak to our community, the basketball game is where you need to be. I absolutely drew a blank. I had no clue what I was going to say.”
What?!? Almost unheard of! But when Babers finally got a full head of steam in addressing those fans that day three years ago, he once more became the orator who has now become a magnetic personality to the entire Syracuse community and expansive alumni base that has rallied around every word that he speaks, in press conferences and viral postgame locker room videos alike.
“When I got out there, I said those three words, ‘We. Will. Win.’ Once it’s out there, you can’t take it back. This team has always been that way in everything we do and every decision we make. It’s about winning. It’s about winning the right way. We don’t want to win the wrong way. I’m just really proud of where those young men are at and, hopefully, we can continue the second part of our season winning things the right way.”
And, hopefully, Babers continues to speak truth to football power for all of us to indulge in. Word for every colorful word.
*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Saturday evening’s game, with all photos taken by ALOST senior photographer Robert Cole. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the gallery. There are 41 pictures in total.