SYRACUSE A month ago, the Syracuse University football team knew it had to get on a run if it wanted to play in a bowl game.
Winner of three of its last four games, the Orange is where it wanted to be. And the biggest reason for that run is the run.
Syracuse has averaged 228.5 rushing yards over its past four games. In its first six games, the Orange ran for an average of 127.5 yards and had just two wins.
There was no real change, just the focus on what we want to do and thats run the ball, Syracuse running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley said.
The resurgence of the Syracuse running game was on full display in last Saturdays 45-26 victory over previously unbeaten Louisville, which put the Orange one win away from bowl eligibility at 5-5 overall and 2-4 in the conference.
Syracuse set a season high with 278 rushing yards, and at the center of it all, the junior duo of Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley each set career highs with 144 and 98 rushing yards, respectively.
Smith, the starter who gets the lions share of the carries, has four straight 100-yard games after never previously topping the century mark in his career.
If Smith were to pass the 100-yard barrier in Saturday nights nonconference game at Missouri, slated for 7 p.m. on ESPNU, he would tie Curtis Brinkley for the programs longest single-season streak.
Its just really the shift in focus in what were doing schematically, Wheatley said. He was always capable of giving you a 100-yard performance. But now the run has been a main focal point, we want to run the ball and in doing so, it gives him chances and opportunities to get over a hundred.
Wheatley said that Gulley and Smith have a good-natured competition, which has helped spark their production.
The two push each other to perform, Wheatley said, in any football situation.
They compete to see who can break off a better run in practice, who can lift more in the weight room, and who can study more film and rattle off more information about opposing defenses.
Its not one of those degrading competitions, Hey, Im better than you, I can do better than you, Wheatley said. No. Its a competition that says, Hey. Were both backs here. We want to put numbers up for Syracuse. Our main objective is to win, first and foremost.
Wheatley said that the competition has spread to goal-line back Adonis Ameen-Moore, who returned from a two-game absence to gain 30 yards on seven carries in Saturdays win, and freshman Ashton Broyld.
The first thing they all have in common is theyre very competitive people, Wheatley said. Thats the one thing that they all have, theyre competitive. They want to be better than what they are and they want to be better than each other, so thats a great attribute, and then at the same time to be humble enough and respect each other.
Syracuse has topped 190 rushing yards in all four games during its current stretch and, in wins over Connecticut and Louisville, put up its only two 200-yard performances against FBS teams this year.
If it can keep that streak going at Missouri, Syracuse might just find itself eligible for a bowl invite before Saturday night is over. A loss would mean that the Orange has to beat Temple in its regular-season finale on Nov. 23 to be bowl eligible.
It doesnt change. We have to stay diligent, Wheatley said. Theres going to be some times where they stuff us and they make some plays, but were going to have to dedicate ourselves to running the ball and just be diligent in running the ball.
The main objective is to win. Whether we run for 10 yards or 220 yards, the main objective is to win, he added.
BIG EAST TITLE PICTURE
With a 4-2 conference record, Syracuse is one of four teams still alive for the Big East championship and the leagues automatic bid to a Bowl Championship Series game.
Rutgers (4-0), Louisville (4-1), and Cincinnati (3-1) are the other three teams in contention.
The Orange, with just one conference game remaining against Temple, holds the tiebreaker over Louisville by virtue of last Saturdays victory.
But Syracuse would lose out if it finishes tied with the Bearcats and/or the Scarlet Knights, as they each handed Syracuse its pair of conference losses. The Orange would be eliminated from contention if Rutgers were to win any of its final three conference games.
AWARDS FROM LOUISVILLE GAME
Syracuse wide receiver Alec Lemon earned the Big East Player of the Week award for his performance against Louisville.
Lemon caught nine passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns, including five receptions on third down. He also earned a helmet sticker from ESPN College Football Gameday.
Quarterback Ryan Nassib was named to the conferences weekly honor roll after his effort in beating the Cardinals. Nassib connected on 15-of-23 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns.
SU-TEMPLE AT 11 A.M.
The time for Syracuses regular-season finale was made official this week. The Orange will play at 11 a.m. on Friday at Temple. The game will be televised on ESPN2.
ACC, ESPN with Orange Bowl
The Atlantic Coast Conference has agreed to a 12-year deal with ESPN for the rights to televise the Orange Bowl, with the conference champion facing either Notre Dame or a team from the Big Ten or SEC.
The deal announced Thursday begins in January 2015 and runs through 2026. ESPN.com has previously reported that the network will play about $55 million per year for the game.
Under the new deal, the Orange Bowl will be played either Dec. 31 or Jan. 1.
Josh St.Croix covers Syracuse University football for the Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Associated Press contributed to this report.