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Originally published Thursday, September 9, 2010 at 8:36 PM

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This week's UW foe, Syracuse, rebuilding with gruff coach

The Syracuse Orange faces Washington Saturday at 4 p.m. at Husky Stadium.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday

Syracuse @ UW, 4 p.m., FSN

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Doug Marrone cites the number like he's almost surprised it's as big as it is.

"We still have 34 players from the 2008 season when I was not here," says Marrone, the second-year coach of the Syracuse Orange, which faces Washington Saturday at 4 p.m. at Husky Stadium.

That team went 3-9, and capped a four-year reign of error that got Greg Robinson fired and brought on Marrone, a gruff-and-tough former Syracuse offensive lineman who said his career goal from the day he graduated was to return someday as coach.

A statement in the team's media guide says that from the day he left SU as a player in 1985 "every decision I have made along that way, I was thinking to myself 'Am I making the right decision so that one day I could come back to Syracuse University?' "

When Robinson was fired following a 10-37 four-year record (that included a 42-12 home loss to UW in 2007) influential alums such as Floyd Little lobbied for Marrone. He had never been a head coach but had a long record as an assistant at the college and NFL levels, spending the 2006-08 seasons as offensive coordinator with the New Orleans Saints.

As is typical of most coaches who take over losing programs, Marrone said job one was to change the culture.

"They haven't had a winning season since 2001 and haven't been to a bowl game since 2004 (when SU went 6-6), so you have to watch what the mindset of the student-athlete is," he said.

What Marrone wanted was players committed to the program, and if they weren't, then he didn't want them around.

According to the New York Daily News, one of his efforts to instill discipline included having the pictures of players who are late to a class or team activity shown on TV screens throughout the team's weight room.

"He came in with rules, and the people who didn't want to follow the rules are gone, and those who did want to follow stayed," said senior linebacker Derrell Smith. "The players who are here now are a lot closer than we were before."

Said senior safety Max Suter, who played in the 2007 loss to UW: "He's a straight-up guy. He says how he wants it done and you either do it his way or you are not going to be in this program. A lot of kids have left this program, but the ones that are here have all bought in."

Suter says that belief was lacking under Robinson.

"Everybody that is here now and on this team, they've bought into the program, and everyone here wants to win," he said. "I can't say in years past that everyone had bought into the program. Now everyone is here because they want to be here."

And despite a record of just 4-8 last season, most close observers of the program say there was visible progress. The Orange finished second in the Big East in total defense, and first in rushing defense, despite sometimes going into games with less than 60 players due to all the attrition. Syracuse dominated then No. 25 Rutgers in the second-to-last game of the season, 31-13, for its marquee win.

The Orange began this season with a 29-3 win at Akron last Saturday. And while that may not sound like much, players said the manner of the win — SU had a 431-166 edge in yards — was another sign of progress, noting that Akron won at Syracuse 42-28 in 2008 and SU had beaten Akron just 28-14 at home last season.

"Last year, we didn't dominate Akron and this year we completely dominated them in all phases of the game," said Suter, one of 10 defensive starters returning. "We haven't had that feeling since I've been here."

Notes

• Syracuse's defensive coordinator is Scott Shafer, who held the same role at Stanford in 2007 when the Cardinal pulled off its stunning upset of USC, where Steve Sarkisian was then offensive coordinator. Sarkisian said that he doesn't know Shafer but that the defense he runs at Syracuse now is similar to that of Stanford then: "He's very aggressive. They're aggressive in their base defense. That's his nature, you know. Hopefully the outcome is a little better for us this time."

• Sarkisian said that true freshman guards Erik Kohler and Colin Porter will play in Saturday's game on the offensive line but that "exactly how many snaps, I don't know. It depends how our drives are going. But they're going to play." Kohler, a highly-touted recruit out of Oaks Christian High in Westlake Village, Calif., had been a left tackle for most of camp, and Sarkisian indicated the move isn't necessarily permanent. "I think just from a transitional point of view and the first time you're in a game as a true freshman, sometimes it's a little easier to have a guy on each side of you than being on that island by yourself," he said.

• Sarkisian said receiver James Johnson, who missed the BYU game with a sprained ankle, should see action but for now remains a backup at his spot behind Cody Bruns, who had three catches against BYU. "Cody is not just giving up the spot," Sarkisian said. "To his credit he is working at it, he's earning it. James is fighting like crazy too, but that's the beauty of our program that you battle and compete and you earn your time and Cody is earning it right now."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

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