Few could have imagined this scenario coming into Saturday’s University of Miami football game at home against Syracuse: a top-10 Hurricanes team after back-to-back, last-second victories over Florida State and Georgia Tech, facing the unranked Orange after an awe-inspiring upset over defending national champion Clemson.
“Football has a lot to do with belief,” Hurricanes coach Mark Richt said a day after the Orange’s 27-24 slaying of Clemson. “There’s no question they’re believing they can beat anybody in America, because they just did.”
At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, No. 8 UM (5-0, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference), one of only eight remaining undefeated teams in the nation, will clash at Hard Rock Stadium with Syracuse (4-3, 2-1), suddenly the darling underdogs of college football.
The victory over then-No. 2 Clemson marked the first time the Orange has defeated a No. 2 AP team in 128 years of football. But the Orange isn’t the only program believing.
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Miami’s 10-game winning streak dating to last season is its longest since 2003-04 and is the second-longest in the Football Bowl Subdivision, behind only No. 16 South Florida’s 11-game streak.
The Canes, favored by 17 1/2 points, are hoping to start 4-0 in ACC play for the first time since they joined the league in 2004.
“We’ve just proven that we’re a tough team,” UM starting safety Jaquan Johnson said this week. “We have that never-die attitude no matter what’s against us. We just believe that we’re going to win, and we want to win, and it happens.”
But coach Mark Richt isn’t convinced his team has arrived yet.
“First of all,” Richt said, “you’re not a top-10 program unless at the end of the year you’re a top-10 program. … We’re not at the point where we can just line up and impose our will on people.
“…We are trying to establish that mindset of winning and doing the things it takes to win. But we’re not a dominant football team. We’re a very, very solid football team that’s fighting like mad just to win the close battles.”
And what about those close battles — such as the victory at FSU on a 23-yard touchdown pass from Malik Rosier to Darrell Langham with six seconds left Oct. 7 in Tallahassee? Or the 15-play, 85-yard drive orchestrated by Rosier and highlighted by a fourth-and-10 catch by Langham that led to the deciding field goal with four seconds left last Saturday?
“We certainly haven’t quit or given up when things look rough, that’s for sure,” Richt said. “And that’s a good sign. But what does it mean for the rest of the season? I couldn’t tell you. It could be two great moments in a season that’s average, or it may be a springboard to something bigger.”
Syracuse coach Dino Babers, whose fiery post-victory speech last week after the win against Clemson had his players in a pulsating frenzy, said his players “never put their heads down and never had any doubt.”
“When everybody believes and when they don’t care who gets the credit,” Babers said, “there is an opportunity for great things to happen.”
Saturday’s game is the renewal of a rivalry that goes back to both teams’ Big East days. UM leads the series 15-7 and has won the last five games dating to 1999, and 11 of 13 since 1990.
Syracuse runs a no-huddle, up-tempo offense that UM defensive coordinator Manny Diaz called “the fastest offense in the country.”
Everything starts with quarterback Eric Dungey and his top receiver Steve Ishmael, a graduate of North Miami Beach High who is third in the nation with 802 receiving yards and first with 62 catches — and one of 12 South Floridians on the Syracuse roster.
Ishmael and fellow receiver Ervin Phillips (56 catches for 569 yards and three touchdowns) make up the top active FBS receiving duo in the nation.
Dungey, who has passed for 2,080 yards and 12 touchdowns, has also rushed for 386 yards and eight touchdowns, making him seventh nationally in total offense.
“He’s the toughest guy on offense,” UM’s Johnson said. “He runs the ball, he throws the ball. He doesn’t really slide. He likes to take hits. He threw a pick against LSU and he was the guy to [make the] tackle. He ripped the defensive back’s helmet off.”
Diaz said he’ll be pretty much rotating in every defensive player Miami has to keep it fresh enough for a Syracuse team that has run more than 90 plays in three of its games.
Said Canes defensive end Trent Harris: “We’re just going to have to rely on each other.”
Saturday: Syracuse at No. 8 Miami
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m.; Hard Rock Stadium.
TV/radio: ESPN; WQAM 560; WMEN 640; 990 ESPN Deportes
Favorite: Miami by 17 1/2.
Records: Miami 5-0 (3-0 ACC); Syracuse 4-3 (2-1 ACC).
Series: Miami leads 15-7.
Miami injuries: Probable — OG Navaughn Donaldson (ankle); WR Ahmmon Richards (hamstring); LB Michael Pinckney (chest); safety Sheldrick Redwine (upper extremity). Out —RB Mark Walton (ankle); CB Dee Delaney (knee).
Syracuse injuries: Questionable — DE Jake Pickard (knee); DL Josh Black (leg); DL Kendall Coleman (ankle); LB Kyle Kleinberg (undisclosed); WR Sean Avant (undisclosed); DL Shaq Grosvenor (undisclosed). Out — OL Aaron Roberts (knee); CB Antwan Cordy (leg).