September 18, 2015

Syracuse, a program that hit its lowest point only a decade ago, is poised to accomplish something special: Starting a season 3-0 for the first time in nearly 25 years.

A big deal? Yes and no.

''If we go 3-0, that will be great. We don't care about any of that,'' junior tight end Kendall Moore said. ''Last year we focused on outside factors like that and we ended up 3-9 (after starting 2-0). The mentality was off. This year just take things day by day.''

With freshman quarterback Eric Dungey at the helm in place of injured captain Terrel Hunt, the Orange has beaten Rhode Island 47-0 and Atlantic Coast Conference rival Wake Forest 30-17. If Syracuse can defeat Central Michigan (1-1) of the Mid-American Conference at home on Saturday, it will be the best start to a season since the 1991 team coached by Paul Pasqualoni won its first four games and finished 10-2.

The Chippewas beat Championship Subdivision foe Monmouth 31-10 a week ago and led Oklahoma State at halftime before losing 24-13 in the season opener.

''I think this is a pretty confident group,'' CMU coach John Bonamego said. ''I believe that they believe they can play with anybody.''

Some things to know when Central Michigan visits the Carrier Dome on Saturday:

DEFENSE FIRST

Despite having to replace eight starters, the Syracuse defense again has been stout. The Orange leads the country in turnover margin with a mark of plus-3.0 - four picks and three fumble recoveries against one Syracuse turnover - that includes two interception returns for scores. Against the run, Syracuse is allowing just 25 yards per game, second nationally. CMU is averaging just 76 yards per game rushing, 122nd among the 127 FBS schools.

FEEL THE RUSH

In a 40-3 loss to Syracuse last season, Central Michigan QB Cooper Rush was 18 for 34 for 183 yards and was sacked five times. He went on to set several school records and an NCAA bowl mark for touchdown passes in the Bahamas Bowl, finishing with a school-record 493 yards passing and seven touchdowns. ''I thought it was a typo,'' Syracuse coach Scott Shafer said of the TDs.

This season, Rush is 53 of 77 for 553 yards passing with three TDs and two interceptions, and he's completing 73 percent of his passes on second down and 71 percent on third down.

''I think we're only just scratching the surface,'' Bonamego said. ''He finds the open guys and gets the ball there. You just don't see him make many bad throws.''

THIRD DOWN

Central Michigan ranks fifth in the nation and first in the MAC in third down conversions - 20 of 35 for 57 percent. The Orange converted just 1 of 9 third downs in last week's comeback 30-17 win over Wake Forest, but that one conversion - a 21-yard completion to Moore on third-and-10 early in the fourth quarter - was key. It set up a 53-yard TD pass two plays later to Steve Ishmael that doomed the Demon Deacons.

DUNGEY'S TIME

Dungey has been unflappable since being thrust into the starting role, going 18 of 30 for 335 yards and four TDs passing with zero turnovers.

Alas, he's not perfect.

''He still messed up a couple of the signals,'' offensive coordinator Tim Lester said of the win over Wake Forest. ''He called a couple of plays that I've never heard of, that we've never run, stuff that isn't even in the playbook, but we ran it. So he got caught up a couple of times, but it never bothers him.''

BIG-PLAY GUYS

Syracuse has big-play threats on both sides of the ball. Brisly Estime returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown against Rhode Island and caught an 89-yard scoring pass last week to go with Ishmael's long scoring play. Defensive end Donnie Simmons returned an interception 41 yards for a TD against the Deacons a week after Corey Winfield returned a pick 24 yards for a score. It's the first time since 1966 the Syracuse defense has returned interceptions for touchdowns in consecutive games. The Orange is second nationally in defensive TDs with those two and has six in its past 13 games.

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