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Super grid season from out of the blue for Syracuse's Orangemen. After poor '86 campaign, return to football glory was unexpected

For the first time in decades, Syracuse has a legitimate contender for top honors in football - bringing back visions of the glory days when stars like Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Floyd Little, and Larry Csonka wore the orange and blue. Since those years, basketball has been the game that most frequently lifted Syracuse teams to national prominence - capped by last season's NCAA Final Four appearance in New Orleans. The school's gridiron fortunes, meanwhile, fell upon a succession of lean years. But now with a 9-0 record, a lucrative bowl bid beckoning, and perhaps even an outside chance at the national championship, all this has changed.

The newfound eminence is still something the university's current football followers are trying to get accustomed to. After all, no Syracuse team has even been close to such honors since the 1959 Orangemen fashioned a 10-0 regular season record and beat Texas in the Cotton Bowl behind a running attack powered by eventual Heisman Trophy winner Davis and captain Gerhard Schwedes.

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This year, despite a 48-21 drubbing of defending national champion Penn State and a solid 24-10 win at Pittsburgh two weeks later, Syracuse has only moved up to the No. 8 position in the national polls. With so many teams ahead of them, including the unbeaten trio of Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Miami at the top, the Orangemen don't really have their fate in their own hands in terms of further progress. But if they win their remaining two games and the right things happen elsewhere in regular-season and bowl action, even No. 1 is a possibility, if only an outside one.

One reason for the apparent lack of respect by the voters lies in Syracuse's unimpressive schedule, which includes such teams as Colgate, Navy, Missouri, Virginia Tech, and Miami (Ohio). Another may be the school's habit over the past 20 years or so of dropping to the rank of also-ran by early November.

But the 1987 Orangemen are for real, and the current lack of attention has served as their motivation.

Two of the three team captains are strong candidates for individual honors. Nose guard Ted Gregory is a leading candidate for the Outland and Lombardi Trophies, awarded to the nation's best lineman, while quarterback Don McPherson is now emerging as a possible Heisman candidate. A lackluster, injury-hampered start kept McPherson out of the spotlight for a while, but the senior signal-caller has come on strongly with his combination of running and passing, his outstanding field generalship, and his ability to make the big plays.

Before last weekend's games, McPherson had climbed to second in the nation in passing efficiency and 13th in total offense. Don's favorite targets are speedsters Rob Moore and Tommy Kane, both originally basketball prospects who were steered to the gridiron instead.

Kane, a junior from Montreal, could be a first-round pro draft choice in 1989. Moore, a Hempstead, N.Y., resident who is only a freshman eligibility-wise, has both the size (6 ft.2 in., 193 lbs.) and the speed (4.3 over 40 yards) to be a future star.

Because of their durability and exceptional catching ability, both Kane and Moore are often compared to former Syracuse All-American Art Monk, an all-pro caliber receiver with the Washington Redskins.

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But defense has been the name of the game in Syracuse since Dick MacPherson took over the coaching reins in 1981 after three years schooling the Cleveland Brown linebackers. Before that, he had been a defensive coach with the Denver Broncos and head coach at the University of Massachusetts.

In the past seven years under MacPherson, Syracuse has developed the reputation of being a pipeline for defensive players to the NFL. This season it is Gregory, along with the third captain, tackle Paul Frase, who lead a star-studded defense. Sophomore linebacker Terry Wooden has emerged as one of the strongest pass-rushers in the East. Safety Marcus Paul, a junior, is in the running for All-America honors. And sophomore middle linebacker David Bavaro (brother of New York Giants tight end Mark), has made running up the middle against the Orangemen a pretty futile proposition.

MacPherson has often said that success has not been a surprise, only that it has come this year. Last season the Orangemen were a dismal 5-6, and given the number of underclassmen in the current lineup, the coach admits he really anticipated looking past this season to 1989 in terms of national championship possibilities.

One person not surprised by recent developments is McPherson, the quarterback who has orchestrated it. As a standout option quarterback in high school, he was recruited by many schools as a defensive back. Among the big-time Eastern schools, only Syracuse was willing to give him a shot at the position he wanted to play.

Even the skeptics knew that McPherson could run, but almost all said his arm was too weak and that he was too short to be an effective major college signal-caller. But he has effectively silenced the doubters in his two seasons as a starter, breaking all school records for total offense, passing, and rushing as a quarterback.

In this season's win over Penn State, Syracuse's first in 17 years, McPherson was awarded the game ball. It was especially sweet, since Penn State's Joe Paterno was one of the coaches who suggested he'd make a better defensive back than quarterback.

Syracuse has two home games remaining against Boston College and West Virginia. Both opponents have proud football traditions and both would love to tattoo the Orangemen with their only loss.

But all season, MacPherson has emphasized to his players the importance of having fun. He has not pressured them to perform, and that has obviously helped them already surpass their preseason goal of seven victories. At this point, everything else is a bonus - but of course they don't want to settle now for anything less than a perfect season and a shot at the national championship.

``We have had to rethink our goals,'' MacPherson said. ``We went into the season looking for a winning season and a bowl. We have already accomplished those things [a trip to some bowl being a certainty]. Now the thinking is let's just go for it.''

And whether they get it or not, the end result of this highly successful campaign seems certain to be what seemed a virtual impossibility just a few years ago - the revival of winning football in Syracuse.

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