Two games into his second season at Syracuse, Scott Shafer likes the direction his Orange seem to be headed after a disappointing start.
"I thought that they definitely improved. They definitely upgraded their game," Shafer said of Saturday's 40-3 road victory over Central Michigan. "I did see good strides."
Those steps came after plenty of bad ones in the season-opener against Villanova. Syracuse (2-0) won that one by a single point in double overtime, and it took a trick play — a pass by punter Riley Dixon — to produce the winning touchdown and a failed gamble by the Wildcats on a two-point conversion attempt to finally get the job done.
Last week, quarterback Terrel Hunt redeemed himself after being ejected late in the first half against Villanova for throwing a punch at a defender. The temper tantrum placed his team in jeopardy with virtually no experience on the depth chart behind him, but they managed to survive against a tough FCS squad.
Against the Chippewas, the 6-foot-3, 234-pound Hunt kept his cool while being showered with taunts and displayed his speed, toughness, and passing accuracy directing the Orange's spread, no-huddle system. Hunt had 13 rushes for 92 yards and three scores, and was 20 of 30 for 175 yards and one TD passing.
Hunt also was not sacked, the Orange had just one three-and-out drive, and Adonis Ameen-Moore had 106 yards on nine carries to help Syracuse pile up 289 yards on the ground.
A week after allowing 389 yards to Villanova, the Orange gave up just 217 against Central Michigan and got two scoring plays from its defense. Marqez Hodge returned a fumble 36 yards early in the second quarter to give Syracuse the lead for good, and Cameron Lynch forced an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone for a safety early in the third.
Syracuse got a nice break when CMU's Thomas Rawls, the team's leading rusher, was scratched prior to the game for a violation of team rules and the Chippewas managed only 34 yards rushing.
That didn't matter much to Shafer.
"When I turn on the tape, it looked like the Syracuse team," Shafer said. "We were physical up front on both sides of the ball. We were taking shots on defense and playing physical, playing football the way it's supposed to be played."
Not letting up will be key with Maryland (2-1) visiting the Carrier Dome on Saturday. Shafer hopes that won't be a problem and doesn't expect it to be — even knowing that the Orange will be on a big stage in prime time the following week against 10th-ranked Notre Dame (3-0) at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
"The message is focus on ourselves and then focus on the opponent at hand. End of story. Shafer said. "It's easy to stay focused on Maryland because when you watch them on tape they're a very good football team."
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