An entire era of Syracuse football might have been deflated when Donovan McNabb, the school's all-time quarterback, played his final game last season.
While McNabb waits to make some sort of statement for himself as a pro this afternoon when his Philadelphia Eagles meet the Buffalo Bills in Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Orange haven't located his successor yet.
The Orangemen defeated a weak West Virginia team, 30-7, in the Carrier Dome Saturday but looked scruffy doing it, largely because they didn't get quality quarterbacking again. There isn't much rhythm to the Orange offense. Their running backs gained just 47 yards rushing against a Mountaineer defense which yielded an average of 243 yards in its first three games. West Virginia's woeful attack outgained Syracuse, 264-227.
Last week when the Orange almost upset fourth-ranked Michigan, quarterback Madei Williams looked as if he might have the right stuff had Paul Pasqualoni, the Syracuse coach, given him enough playing time. Saturday Williams was a disaster, starting with his second passing attempt of the game, on which he was sacked in the end zone for a safety.
Troy Nunes, who seemed to have taken himself out of contention when he retreated 30 yards to produce a damaging safety against Michigan, ran for the Orange's first touchdown and passed for the second. He might have been rewarded for that but in between, Nunes played poorly enough to make Pasqualoni shaky about making him the starter.
Using a two-quarterback system on a team whose strengths include a strong offense and a number of good offensive players, the Orange could repeat one of their 8-3 seasons, finish respectably in a weak Big East and end up in some minor bowl game at the end of the season. Unless there is a surprise turnaround with the quarterbacks, they are long shots to beat the conference heavyweights, Virginia Tech and Miami.
McNabb has been following a lot of this via television.
"I think Syracuse will settle this and pick its starter pretty soon," said McNabb, who is part of his own controversy over whether he or journeyman Doug Pederson should be starting for Philly. "I think the Eagles will settle it and pick a starter soon, too."
Bet on the Eagles to win this decision-making race.
If their quarterbacks were laid end-to-end, the Syracuse coaching staff still couldn't come to a conclusion over which one should be No. 1, or even if there should be a No. 1.
"I don't know," admitted Pasqualoni, when he was asked whether the rotation of Williams and Nunes could go on all season. "I know we're going back to the same system of evaluation of our quarterbacks. It's not going to happen tonight. We're going to start over on Monday."
Pasqualoni isn't getting any prodding from George DeLeone, his No. 1 lieutenant who assumed his old offensive coordinator's role after Kevin Rogers was hired by Notre Dame. DeLeone is even less inclined to admit there is something faulty about employing twin quarterbacks, or whether there actually is a controversy.
"What we have are two tremendously unselfish guys," said DeLeone, "and we are going to take it day by day, down by down, practice by practice, drill by drill. Our goal is not to find one quarterback, but to find success from the quarterback position."
It would be something new for Syracuse, for which the orderly succession of quarterbacks has been a hallmark of its successful years playing in the Dome. When Don McPherson, the man who should have won the Heisman Trophy in 1987, graduated, there was Todd Philcox to accept the mantle and keep leading the Orange to big victories. When Marvin Graves ended his outstanding career in 1993, Kevin Mason was there to take over.
The Orange still runs its traditional "freeze-option" attack, which McNabb worked to perfection, as did his predecessors. Williams seems to have a better handle on that style of offense -- but only when it is run to the wide side of the field.
The "freeze-option" is still something of a mystery to Nunes, who is best right now, operating by the seat of his pants. He produced two touchdowns that way, running for 23 yards to score one and passing to Pat Woodcock for another 22-yard touchdown. Yet even on those two plays, Nunes looked uncertain, even mystified. Both he and Williams hold the ball too long before they make a decision.
Not that McNabb's eventual successor is off somewhere presently playing high school football. Williams is a sophomore and Nunes just a redshirt freshman. Sophomores and freshmen get better. The question for Syracuse fans is "when?"