SYRACUSE, New York — Whether his team needs a miracle or not, Syracuse coach Scott Shafer knows his squad has its work cut out for it if it wants to be eligible for a post-season bowl following a 24-17 loss to North Carolina State on Saturday.
"We've got to win out and pull off a miracle, but let's do it," Shafer said after Syracuse dropped to 3-6 on the season and 1-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. To be eligible for post-season play, Syracuse must defeat Duke, Pitt and Boston College in its final three games.
"You have yourself in this position where everything is doom and gloom but you've got an opportunity to prove a lot of people wrong and prove to your kids that anything is possible. It's not a miracle, it's us playing really well or catching them down or something like that," Shafer added.
The Orange (3-6, 1-4) almost pulled off a much-needed miracle Saturday. Cole Murphy's 50-yard field goal with 17 seconds to go in the game pulled the Orange to 24-17. The ensuing onside kick was recovered and returned for an apparent touchdown by linebacker Dyshawn Davis, however, the ball was ruled dead where Davis had recovered it.
"Dyshawn got it and you can't advance the ball so it's my understanding that you get the ball there and the clock stops," Shafer said.
SU's offense was feeble much of the first half, and its rushing attack gained just 38 yards for the entire game against a defense ranked 90th in the country stopping the run. Much of that, however, was due to Syracuse's banged-up offensive line.
"I don't like to make excuses," Shafer said. "We have a lot of guys inside and out hurt. We're just not the same up front right now."
Shafer was pleased with the way his team came back from a 9-0 deficit to take a 14-9 lead but the game turned on an 82-yard interception return for touchdown by North Carolina State defensive end Pharoah McKever. The play turned the 5-point lead into a 17-14 deficit.
It was the Wolfpack's first ACC win in nearly two years, breaking a four-game losing streak.
McKever pedaled back into coverage, intercepted an AJ Long pass on his own 18-yard line and ran down the right sideline for the 82-yard go-ahead score with 2:52 to go in the third. A shovel pass from quarterback Jacoby Brissett to running back Matt Dayes gave NC State a two-point conversion and the 17-14 margin. An 18-yard touchdown pass from Brissett to Shadrach Thornton with 2:14 to go sealed the win for the Wolfpack (5-4, 1-4).
"It was a nice play by them," Shafer said. "They dropped an end in coverage. It's tough, especially for a young quarterback when you drop an end in coverage. AJ didn't see the guy there and he made a nice play to turn it into a touchdown."
The game-changing play sucked the momentum out of the Orange, which managed only the 50-yard field goal by Murphy the rest of the way.
McKever, a redshirt freshman who began his collegiate career as a wide receiver, was among seven North Carolina State players suspended for the team's game against Louisville on Oct. 18 due to a BB gun incident at an off-campus residence. He saw no action in games against Georgia Southern and Florida State but earned his first start at South Florida.
Against Syracuse, he only had the biggest play of the game.
The 6-foot-6 Long Island, NY native said he simply jumped into Long's passing lane for the decisive score.
"I was gassed until the next series," he admitted. "It felt good. I played wide receiver last year and I really haven't run that far in a long time, so when I got the ball, my intention was to just go and keep going. This is definitely the highlight of my football career."
The win broke a four-game losing streak and gave second-year coach Dave Doeren his first conference win after 12 losses, the longest streak in school history. The Wolfpack's last conference win came Nov. 24, 2012 against Boston College.
"I'm excited to get our first ACC win," Doeren said. "Winning on the road means a lot to me, too. It's been a problem in the past. It's good to be back on the winning side of things. It was good to see the light in our players faces right now. I'm proud of them for fighting. It's not about me. It's all about them.
"The defense carried us today," he added. "It was an old-school football game - field position, defense, sacks, hits."
Shafer said the momentum definitely shifted following McKever's play.
"Momentum is a big deal in sports and football and trying to bounce back from it. It's one of those things you can't answer. You keep trying to fight and get that next spark going," he said.