It was a simple message – one the Syracuse coaching staff had preached the entire 2010 season, and one instilled into cornerback Da’Mon Merkerson’s mind. A motto that became more pertinent than ever in the Pinstripe Bowl as Kansas State lined up for a potentially game-tying two-point conversion with 1:13 remaining.
Syracuse’s defense had certainly bent – it surrendered 34 points and let the Wildcats hang around. But it never broke. The Orange stopped KSU when it mattered most, preserving a 36-34 win.
“We gave them a touchdown, but we’re not gonna give up the game,” Merkerson said. “It was a defining moment. We may bend, but we’re not gonna break.”
After winning just 14 games combined throughout the previous five seasons, a win in the Pinstripe Bowl capped a full-fledged turnaround for Syracuse. That win helped paved the way for the current team and changed the culture of SU football. The 2012 Orange qualified for the Pinstripe Bowl yet again after a 7-5 regular season, and will face West Virginia on Saturday at 3:15 p.m.
Syracuse’s defense bent three times on three touchdown runs by Daniel Thomas. It bent yet again when quarterback Carson Coffman delivered a 30-yard touchdown pass to Adrian Hilburn to cut the deficit to two.
“We all came up together and said, ‘We worked too hard for this, man,’” linebacker Derrell Smith said. “One more play and we got the win.”
As Merkerson saw the ball coming toward him, he knew he had to make a play.
And he did. Merkerson didn’t let his man, Aubrey Quarles, catch the ball, as SU held on for the win.
“Everybody did what they were supposed to do,” Smith said. “Everybody stayed in their lane and did their responsibility and we came out with the win. It was a great experience for me. It was a crazy feeling.”
Earlier, with less than six minutes remaining in the game and Kansas State down five with the ball at Syracuse’s 11-yard-line, Wildcat head coach Bill Snyder made a gutsy call – a call he admitted was the wrong one after the game.
He decided to go for it on fourth down, instead of kicking a field goal and cutting the deficit to two, hoping to catch the Syracuse defense off guard.
But SU’s defense, led by the now-junior linebacker Marquis Spruill, swarmed around Ryan Doerr and sent him to the ground. Syracuse took over on downs with a chance to control its own destiny.
That’s when Orange running back Delone Carter went into beast mode. Carter had already racked up two touchdowns and more than 100 yards, but his most electrifying run came on the very next play after Syracuse regained possession.
Carter burst through a hole in the KSU defense and jetted down the near side of the field, picking up 60 yards before being tackled.
“The highlight of the game was Delone when he broke out for that run. He needs some extra speed because he got caught,” Merkerson said with a chuckle. “But that run, it was like, at that moment, we’re gonna win.”
Ross Krautman nailed a 39-yard field goal, extending Syracuse’s lead to 36-28 with just 3:08 remaining. But that was all the time Coffman and the Wildcats needed.
The quarterback sparked a drive downfield and gave Kansas State a chance. After Hilburn’s 30-yard touchdown reception, the wide receiver capped off the play with what seemed like a harmless celebratory gesture at the time.
He saluted the orange-clad crowd with a simple wave of the hand, a wave that may have cost KSU a win. The refs slapped him with a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, pushing the Wildcats’ two-point conversion attempt back to the 17-yard line.
After a questionable call that went in their favor, the Orange defenders didn’t loosen up or breathe a sigh of relief. Instead, they bore down for one final play and made the stop, refusing to break.
Smith, who will be on the sidelines as a motivator for the Orange on Saturday, said the win helped turn the program around and made people respect Syracuse football.
“We had come so far those past few years from being down and being the laughing stock of college football,” Smith said. “For us to reach a bowl game and to win it in that manner – and to show that we had resiliency and we can persevere through tough times – it was something special for us.”
But for Merkerson, who grew up in nearby Passaic, N.J., the game wasn’t the only exhilarating aspect of the trip.
He recalls being overwhelmed inside Yankee Stadium, marveling at the spectacle around him. He had never played football on a baseball field and had never been inside the historic ballpark.
It was all a new experience for Merkerson. Even the jumbo-sized videoboard in Yankee Stadium was something new for the cornerback.
“That screen was so clear,” Merkerson said. “I was on the field looking at the screen thinking, ‘Damn, I wish I had that in my house.' It was overwhelming.”
Defensive end Mikhail Marinovich remembers walking into the Yankees’ locker room and then stepping onto the field, trying to take in the significance of the situation.
“It was a privilege to be there,” Marinovich said. “I’m a fan of baseball to begin with, so it was a little something special on top of just making it to a bowl game.”
Now, two years after the 2010 team set the foundation and paved the way for this year’s team to shine, the Orange looks for yet another win in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium. SU will try to leave the Big East with a bang and earn its second bowl game victory in the last three years.
Merkerson, Smith and Marinovich will be watching, as players who shined at Yankee Stadium in 2010, such as wide receiver Marcus Sales and quarterback Ryan Nassib, look to add to their legacy with yet another momentous win.
“They’re like my little brothers,” Merkerson said. “I feel like a foundation was laid down, and now those guys will continue to teach the guys underneath them what needs to be done to continue to succeed.
“Winning isn’t easy. It’s a great feeling to see people excelling.”
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