When Scott Shafer took over the reins of the Syracuse football program 10 months ago, he made no secret about the type of team he wanted to build during his tenure there.
“I want to put the fear of God in the opposing football player that happens to have the ball underneath his arm,” Shafer said at his introductory news conference. “That’s what we want to do, play an aggressive style of defense that people love to watch.
“When we get the opposition in the loud house [at the Carrier Dome], we lock the doors behind them and we don’t let them out.”
It wasn’t going to be easy. Shafer was tasked with continuing a reclamation project that former coach Doug Marrone had painstakingly built over his four-year tenure. In the four years before Marrone’s arrival, the Orange had won just 10 games.
Marrone, though, led the Orange to two bowl wins during his tenure and a share of the Big East title last season, before leaving to take the Buffalo Bills’ head coaching job. Shafer, Marrone’s defensive coordinator, was given the head coaching job.
Now all he has to do is win at a school that hasn’t reached back-to-back bowl games since the late 1990s. And to make things tougher, he has to do it while replacing quarterback Ryan Nassib, who was drafted by the Giants in April.
The Orange started off slow, with losses to Penn State and Northwestern to start the year, but have bounced back and won two of its past three, with the only loss coming to No. 2 Florida State.
Just like Pitt, Syracuse (5-5, 3-3 ACC) is one win away from securing bowl eligibility.
“Obviously, it’s important for all the programs that are looking to get in that position,” Shafer said. “But really, for us, the focus has got to be just getting the next win, and if we stay small with our target and our focus is on that, all of the bigger things take care of themselves.”
One of the biggest developments for the Orange this season has been simply finding an offensive identity. Senior Drew Allen started the first three games at quarterback, but was replaced by sophomore Terrel Hunt, a more athletic option if a less polished passer.
Since then, Syracuse has made its yardage primarily on the ground.
“The running game is something we’ve done a pretty good job with,” Shafer said. “And regardless of which games we’ve been on, we’ve been pretty consistent from that side of it.
“And then we’ve tried to look at what we are on offense, passing the ball, and what we aren’t.”
Pitt defensive coordinator Matt House said there are some similarities to the current Orange offense and what Marrone and Nassib ran last year, but with a few more quarterback runs mixed in.
“They still did the zone-read game, but it was a little different spin,” House said.
This will be the third time Pitt coach Paul Chryst will have matched wits with Shafer in some form. The two coached in last year’s 14-13 Syracuse win, and also in 2008 when Shafer was the defensive coordinator at Michigan and Chryst was the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin. That game ended in a 27-25 Wolverines win.
“I think he’s a heck of a football coach,” Chryst said. “I think that it looks to me like he’s done a good job in transitioning. He was there, but it seems like he’s putting his stamp on it as well.”
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG