West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith learned a lesson the hard way, the same one that South Florida's B.J. Daniels absorbed in a not-so-friendly manner: the Syracuse defense can be pretty darn good when it's clicking.
In posting two impressive Big East road wins, the resurgent Orange (5-2, 2-1 Big East) relied on its defense to keep them in both games, and the performances were eye-opening: the elusive Daniels, an exceptional runner, was intercepted twice and sacked four times in a 13-9 loss three weeks ago; Smith, who was completing 68 percent of his passes, threw three first-half interceptions and was sacked five times in a 19-14 loss last Saturday, one that helped erase the memory of the Orange's poor performance in a 45-14 loss to Pitt the previous week.
Senior linebacker Doug Hogue helped anchor a defense that kept the Mountaineers off the scoreboard for the final three quarters, and he was honored with his second national defensive player of the week award for his performance - a team-high 10 tackles, two interceptions and a pass breakup.
Syracuse meets Cincinnati (3-4, 1-1) on Saturday.
"It's crazy. It's really a credit to the whole defense," Hogue said. "I wouldn't have been in that situation if it wasn't for the d-line putting pressure on the quarterback and everybody running to the ball. Nobody is selfish. Nobody on the team thinks they're above anybody else. We all understand that. Week in and week out, we all have to rely on each other, we have to keep each other accountable at all times. That's just how it is."
Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer is the mastermind of a unit that's ranked 16th in the nation, allowing just over 300 yards and 19 points a game. That Hogue and senior middle linebacker Derrell Smith are both former running backs is part of a philosophy Shafer learned a long time ago when his coaching sojourn began as a graduate assistant under Bill Mallory at Indiana.
Shafer joined the Syracuse staff last season after one-year stints at Stanford and Michigan. He has learned from some of the best - including Tommy Tuberville, now the coach at Texas Tech - that running backs could be molded into topflight linebackers.
"They all said the same thing. They were looking for those running backs that weren't good enough to get recruited as a major college running back," Shafer said. "Usually, those kids are maybe third, fourth or fifth on the depth chart. They just want to play. You want to sit on the bench, be on special teams, or get a chance to play? It's not a real, hard sell."
One that Shafer convinced when he was an assistant at Western Michigan was Ameer Ismail, and he led the country with 17 sacks and 25 1/2 tackles for a loss as a senior in 2006.
"He was the backup running back when we first got there," Shafer said. "I think those running backs know how to blitz because they're running through the same windows that they were taught to run through as a running back. Those guys can wiggle through windows."
Smith ranks second in the Big East in solo tackles with 38 and Hogue has 29. Combined, they're averaging more than 15 tackles a game. Smith also has two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery and Hogue has a blocked kick. Both also have helped freshman linebacker Marquis Spruill mature quickly. He leads the Orange with six tackles for loss.
"In high school, I was always the guy who got tough yards, ran a lot of people over," said Smith, named Gatorade player of the year in Delaware as a senior at Paul M. Hodgson Vocational Tech. That season, he registered 1,225 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns. "I definitely wanted to be like Jim Brown one day, but I think the changes I went through definitely worked out for the better."
Hogue cracks a sheepish smile when he thinks about his transformation from offense to defense.
"I guess it's a natural thing, especially with this defense because we attack all the time," he said. "You have to be fast, running sideline to sideline, getting downhill. If you can run, you can play on this defense."
Coach Doug Marrone marvels at more than what both Smith and Hogue have done on the field.
"Everyone can see their contributions as players," Marrone said. "But what I appreciate most from the two is their accomplishments as leaders, not only what they do with the football team but what they do around campus and in the classroom. We're getting a lot from those players."