The death stare of Paul Chryst. You've been warned. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
The previews roll on and just in time for Big East play. The Orange escape non-conference play with a 3-1 record, somewhat optimistic, but doable. The Orange now enter their last season of Big East play needing three wins to become bowl eligible. Unfortunately, that's much easier said than done and the first roadblock in Syracuse's way are the Pittsburgh Panthers.
Pitt Panthers Overview:
The Pitt Panthers are coming off a 6-7 season that ended with a loss to SMU in the BVA Compass Bowl. (Oh by the way the Panthers beat Syracuse to earn the right to be trampled in case you didn't know.) Another thing you may not know, the Panthers are set for the ACC after this year. Under their third coach in four years, the Panthers are looking to return to their pro style system and run the ball behind Ray Graham. Graham tore his ACL against UConn when he led the NCAA in total rushing yards. The defense graduated most of the line, but retain depth at safety. The key will be the linebackers who are lacking in experience. Many predict the Panthers to finish in the top half of the conference with an outside shot at the title.
How the Orange should attack the Panthers:
The Panthers defense is anchored by their secondary. Under Dave Wannstedt, the Panthers built up one of the best secondaries in the country. This season, that trend continues. Jarred Holley and Ray Vinopal make up one of the best safety duos in the country and K'Waun Williams is picked by many to be the best corner in the country. The linebackers are inexperienced and the only "veteran," Dan Mason, missed most of 2010 and all of 2011 with a knee injury many thought would end his career. The defensive line graduated everyone except defensive tackle Aaron Donald and switch to a four man front, essentially killing all depth.
With all of that, the Orange will have to effectively run the ball. Ryan Nassib and crew already seem to lack playmakers and even if they had one in the receiving corps, Pitt would be the team to shut them down. Ashton Broyld, Davonte McFarland, Prince Tyson Gulley, and Jerome Smith will have to combine for most, if not all, of the offense in this game. Since no one is sure who will run the ball for Syracuse, let alone how, this game looks like a stiff challenge against an athletic defense sure to be aggressive. Running the ball to left behind Pugh (if he returns) is the best option because that matches up against the inexperienced side of the Pitt front seven.
How the Orange defend the Panthers:
The Pitt Panthers have one recipe for success: Ray Graham. Graham should thrive under Paul Chryst's downill running system. Even better, Rushel Shell is expected to live up to his #6 RB recruiting rating. He and Graham will take a lot of the pressure off Tino Sunseri, who will be learning his third system in three seasons. Sunseri really lacks any playmakers on the edges to throw to, his job will be to balance out the air attack so that teams don't overstack the box to completely hinder Graham's production.
The Orange have to engage with their front seven if they want any chance to win. The defensive line needs to maul away at a offensive line that lacks depth while the linebackers need to plug gaps that Graham will excelerate through quicker than anyone the Orange will face. Sunseri won't try to air it out too much but if he does, man coverage is a must because dropping five back for a zone will allow Graham to run wild. It's a very simple forumla, but Graham is a player you slow down at best, not stop.
X Factor: Deon Goggins
A rusher off the edge will be a huge plus. If Goggins can quickly separate and get into the backfield, Graham will tend to run the other way. All of the sudden, things get a little easier for the overmatched Orange defense.
The Orange don't match up well in this one. A weakened front line against one of the best runners in the country in a weather neutral dome favors Pitt. The Orange may be able to run the ball with their tandem, but Graham and the Pitt secondary attack the weakest point of the Orange while shutting down their strongest. Pitt wins the last Big East matchup 24-14.