On his way to work on a cold morning in December 1996, Syracuse
coach Paul Pasqualoni stopped at a coffee shop to pick up a
bagel and a warm cup of joe. While waiting for his order,
Pasqualoni exchanged pleasantries with a female customer. When
he left, the woman quietly followed him out the door and trailed
him in her car to the parking lot outside the coach's office.
There--The Rules be damned--she asked the lifelong bachelor out
to a movie. Thirteen months and many movies later, in a small
ceremony on Valentine's Day, 1998, Jill Fleischman became Mrs.
That event was the hot topic of conversation in the Orangemen's
weight room during the off-season. "We've talked about a wedding
gift for a long time, but we haven't given Coach one yet," says
senior quarterback Donovan McNabb. "We've decided that the best
thing we can do is have a winning season. Maybe even an
undefeated season." A nice thought, but given Syracuse's
murderous early schedule, together with a very green defense,
well, dinnerware seems a more realistic gift.
Not only must the Orangemen replace seven defensive starters,
including four All-Big East picks, but they also have a new
defensive coordinator, George DeLeone, who spent the last 14
years coaching offenses in college and the NFL. Though this
might not seem the standard recipe for success, Pasqualoni is
not overly concerned. "He's done it before," says the
Orangemen's coach, referring to DeLeone's stint as Rutgers's
defensive coordinator from 1980 through '83. "With his
experience in football he's well equipped to do the job for us."
How Syracuse handles the daunting early slate will be another
key. In each of the last two seasons, the Orangemen were out of
national title contention by late September. This year they open
at home against Tennessee, which finished last season at No. 7,
then go on the road the following week to play Michigan, the
defending national champion. Though it's admirable that Syracuse
doesn't fill its nonconference schedule with cream puffs, the
only way the Orangemen will be playing for anything more than a
Big East crown is if they light up the scoreboard.
That is possible. Syracuse retains most of its key starters from
an offense that set school records in 1997 for yards and points.
The attack will be even more potent this season thanks to the
return of fullback Rob Konrad, who missed the final three games
of last year with a torn tendon in his left knee. With Konrad
(6.6 yards per carry in '97), tailback Kyle McIntosh (5.0 yards
per carry over the last three years) and McNabb, the Orangemen
have one of the most talented backfields in the country.
The last we saw of McNabb, he was completing just 16 of 39
passes in Syracuse's 35-18 loss to Kansas State in the Fiesta
Bowl. Determined to avoid a repeat of that performance,
McNabb--who was a backup guard on the Orangemen's basketball
team for two years--focused exclusively on football this
off-season. Recently he has been rivaling Pasqualoni, who
routinely logs 16-hour days, in the film room. Still, the
two-time Big East offensive player of the year needs to play
like the Heisman Trophy candidate many believe he is if Syracuse
is going to avoid the disappointments of the last two autumns.
Can he lead his team to a national title? "It's not out of the
question," says McNabb. "Stranger things have happened."
And at Syracuse lately, they've come to expect the unexpected.
Just ask Mrs. Paul Pasqualoni.
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER DECISION MAKER McNabb is triggerman for one of the nation's best option attacks. [Donovan McNabb]
1997 record: 9-4 (6-1, 1st in Big East)
Final ranking: No. 21 AP, No. 20 coaches' poll
1997 Averages OFFENSE DEFENSE
Scoring 35.3 15.9
Rushing Yards 201.4 109.8
Passing Yards 225.8 180.4
Total Yards 427.3 290.2
Throwing to wideouts Kevin Johnson and Quinton Spotwood (a
combined 73 catches last year), Donovan McNabb should continue
to improve his passing numbers (2,488 yards, 20 TDs in '97)....
Johnson (two kickoff returns for TDs in '97) and Spotwood (four
TD punt returns) are the nation's top return tandem....
Sophomore linebacker Morlon Greenwood (64 tackles last year)
looks like a big-time player.
Schedule strength: 28th of 112
Sept. 5 vs. Tennessee With Michigan looming the following week,
the Orangemen must win this tough game to avoid an 0-2 start.
Nov. 28 vs. Miami The Big East title and a major bowl bid could
be on the line against the Hurricanes, who are 3-0 at the
The Bottom Line
Too many defensive uncertainties--and two tough games atop the
schedule--make a serious run for the national title unlikely.