KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) — Syracuse opens its season with a true road game for the first time in eight years, and the Orange can’t afford any early season slip-ups if they hope to escape a three-year rut.
Syracuse, which has finished 4-8 in each of the past three seasons, has won its last four season openers, all in the friendly confines of the Carrier Dome. But the Orange open at Western Michigan on Friday night and coach Dino Babers is well aware of what’s at stake.
“This game is huge,” said Babers, who begins his third season. “It’s different for a program of our size. I’ll tell you this, we’ve got an experienced enough team that we should be OK. We’ve got enough seniors. We should be able to do this.”
Last season, Syracuse won its opener, then stumbled at home in a loss to Middle Tennessee. Former Orange coach Scott Shafer, who was fired after three seasons and replaced by Babers, was in his first year as defensive coordinator for the Blue Raiders and was puffing on a victory cigar after a satisfying 30-23 win.
New season, similar scenario.
Former Syracuse offensive coordinator Tim Lester is in his second season as head coach at Western Michigan, and he recruited Orange senior quarterback Eric Dungey, among others. WMU defensive coordinator Tim Daoust and offensive coordinator Jake Moreland also served as assistants under Shafer, and former Orange cornerback Juwan Dowels is on the Broncos roster playing his final year in college as a graduate transfer.
That’s a stacked deck.
“I think it’s a huge advantage for them,” Babers said. “They know these players. They recruited them. They’ve watched them on tape. They should have a good feel for what they can do and what they can’t do.”
“It is different,” said Eric Dungey, who was sacked five times and pressured throughout in a subpar performance against Middle Tennessee. “He (Lester) is a very competitive person and he knows I’m a very competitive person. He knows me the best, but I’ve grown a lot since freshman year.”
The meeting is the first between the schools.
Dungey’s final season represents his last chance to prove he’s not as fragile as everybody seems to think. Injuries have greatly hampered his career: The 6-foot-4, 226-pounder has missed the final three games in each of his three seasons as the starter — and he’s confident that will change. When healthy, he’s been stellar. Despite his three-game absence last fall, Dungey amassed 3,090 yards of total offense, the second-best total in school history.
“He’s one of those guys that wills you to victory,” Lester said. “You’re not going to get in his head. He’s going to make some plays.”
WMU went 6-6 in 2017 under Lester, who succeeded P.J. Fleck. The Broncos thrive on the ground behind a stable of running backs — Jamauri Bogan, LeVante Bellamy and Davon Tucker. All three suffered season-ending injuries last fall but are healthy again.
“The guys are really excited,” said Bogan, who has rushed for 2,563 yards and 27 TDs. “We get to play an ACC opponent, not at their home but at ours. They bring a lot of challenges, speed, power, they’re different. But the challenge itself is what our team gets up for.”
Syracuse is a woeful 11-21 in true road openers. The last time the Orange started on the road was in 2010, when QB Ryan Nassib led them to a 29-3 win at Akron under Doug Marrone.
Syracuse and Western Michigan have played in the two highest-scoring games in FBS history. The Orange lost 76-61 to Pitt in the 2016 regular-season finale and last year the Broncos beat Mid-American Conference rival Buffalo 71-68 in seven overtimes.
The Syracuse game will mark the second time in four years that WMU has hosted a Power Five school to open the season. The Broncos hosted then-No. 5 Michigan State in 2015 and have played a Power Five school in their opening game every season since 2005. Their lone win over an Atlantic Coast Conference foe was in 2006 (17-10 over Virginia).