Syracuse's season is over, for all intents and purposes -- if those intents and purposes were to make the postseason. But Pitt's season ISN'T over just yet, which is why this game holds a bit of importance. The 4-6 Panthers need to win out vs. long-time non-rivals Syracuse and Miami if they want to get back to a bowl (that's likely located in Birmingham). Wouldn't it be nice to offer them a similar fate to us this week, rather than waiting on next week?
Below, Anson Whaley (who you should follow on Twitter) from SB Nation's Pitt site Cardiac Hill, stops by to tell us what we need to know about Panthers football. We also do the same over there, which you'll want to read (once it's up).
Syracuse's season has been pretty disappointing. Assuming Pitt's in a similar boat?
Yeah, definitely. At the beginning of the season, the goal was to compete for a Coastal Division title since it looked pretty wide open. Granted, there were plenty of question marks. Aaron Donald left a huge hole on defense, Pitt was breaking in a new quarterback, and the team also lost wide receiver Devin Street to the NFL. Still, the schedule was beyond favorable and seven wins looked like a bare minimum, to be honest. The Panthers avoided Florida State and Clemson, and got Duke and Georgia Tech at home. Overall, things looked rather favorable.
I said earlier this year that seven regular season wins was really the bare minimum for Pitt and that anything less would be an utter disaster. That's where we're at - disaster level. And when you consider they started 3-0, it's even worse in my eyes. Pitt has lost six of its past seven games and that's the worst stretch since 1998. With a light schedule and a new head coach in his third season, there's really no reason for that kind of ineptitude.
James Conner seems like a real monster of a running back. Where'd all that come from?
Conner definitely showed some flashes last season, but it'd be foolish to say that any of us predicted this. One thing that kind of handcuffed him last year was that he and Isaac Bennett regularly split carries. In half of the team's games, he had fewer than ten carries, and I think that makes it hard to get into any type of a rhythm.
Another thing helping him is that the offensive line is improving. That unit was often a disaster at times last year and they're really giving him some incredible holes. Tackle T.J. Clemmings could be a high-round draft pick this year, and others such as Dorian Johnson and Adam Bisnowaty were 4-5 star recruits. The unit is getting stronger and the running backs are benefiting from that.
Overall, though, Conner is just the perfect combination of size and speed. He's not a burner, but has enough burst to get out of the backfield in a hurry. He's also a bruising back and it takes several guys to bring him down. If he's in open space, which has happened a good bit this year, he'll break off big runs. There aren't many bigger backs with his size that are as quick and when you put both of those things together, it just makes for a talented kid.
Do Panthers fans believe in Chad Voytik, or is he just a stop-gap at QB?
Depends on who you ask. To me, it's pretty silly that some fans are ruling him out as nothing more than a stop-gap at this point. He doesn't even have a full season under his belt as a starting quarterback and having played sparingly last year, this is his first real playing time at all.
So far, he's had limitations. But he's also been playing better lately. He hasn't thrown a pick in the past three games and has made a lot of big plays with his legs this year. He's completing more than 60% of his passes and, overall, has been serviceable.
Many fans aren't happy with him because a lot of them want to see a team sling the ball all over the field and racking up 300-yard passing games. But when you've got one of the best running games in the nation, the quarterback, by default, is going to be passing less.
Voytik doesn't have a strong arm and needs to be more consistent, but overall, he's not been terrible. The book is still open on him in my mind.
Orange fans weren't thrilled to see this game second-to-last on the schedule yet again. Is the feeling mutual?
Ha, to be honest, I hadn't given it much thought. It does always seem to be later, though.
Overall feelings on Paul Chryst? While it seems he's done well, Pitt has sort of hung around .500 just the same.
Yeah, the thoughts on Chryst are, as you would expect, pretty divided. You could say they were divided last year, but he's definitely lost some followers this season. Three years in and, as I mentioned, with a favorable schedule, you'd expect more here.
I think fans can understand not pulling off more upsets, but what they (justifiably) are upset about are the continued struggles against some weaker teams. Chryst lost his debut to Youngstown State. The team lost to Navy last year (who, despite their record, was a team Pitt should beat). This year, they lost to Akron. Those kinds of things just wear on a fanbase and when you throw in the coulda-woulda-shoulda games like Duke, where Pitt needed only a 26-yard field goal to win, it just adds to the frustration.
Is there any player on the Orange that concerns you with regard to the outcome of this contest?
Cameron Lynch is a guy that Pitt needs to watch. His sack totals have dropped since the beginning of the year, but he's pretty disruptive and still one of the top tacklers in the conference. Even beyond the pressure that he can put on Voytik in the backfield, he could also help neutralize his running ability a little as well. If you take that from Voytik, he doesn't make nearly the impact he's capable of.
Who should SU fans keep an eye out for, other than Conner?
Wide receiver Tyler Boyd's the main guy outside of Conner. He got off to a slow start because of the passing woes, but has come on lately now that Voytik has improved a little. He had only one 100-yard game in Pitt's first seven, but has been over 100 in each of the last three, with 437 yards in those games. He's really heating up and just a candidate for a big play.
Predictions for Saturday?
We've seen Pitt lose to Akron, so nothing would surprise me, to be honest. But with the game at home on Senior Day and their bowl hopes on the line (while Syracuse's have been dashed), you'd like to think they'll win. Pitt's also been right there in most of their losses while the Orange haven't been too competitive a lot of the time, while playing, admittedly, a really difficult schedule. The one thing I'll say is that the lower the score, the more beneficial it is for Syracuse. They won't score a ton of points, but their defense is above average. If the game is a low-scoring one, it benefits the Orange.
If you're asking me for a pick, though, I'll cautiously take Pitt here 24-17.