Things have taken a turn this season. The cure for what ails the fading Syracuse Orange football team? Probably not the ACC-mandated annual thing with the Pittsburgh Panthers. But hey, maybe we're surprised, right? RIGHT?!
Below, Anson Whaley (who you should follow on Twitter) from SB Nation's Pitt blog Cardiac Hill, stops by to share everything we'll need to know around the Panthers. We answered some questions over there too, and can share that link once it's live.
While Pitt probably had some high hopes going into this season, did anyone expect a 5-1 start either before or after James Conner went down?
Even with Conner, I don't think many people could have predicted this kind of start. Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, of course, were supposed to be better than this, but Pitt has still exceeded expectations in my book. At this point in the season, I predicted a 4-2 mark, but wouldn't have been too surprised to see them land at 3-3, either. The 5-1 start, even with the lackluster showings by the Yellow Jackets and Hokies, is still very unexpected. Don't forget, too, that this is a program with losses to Akron, Youngstown State, and Navy in the past three years. Even though Pitt generally pulls off an upset or two, they have really been snakebitten with some losses to weaker opponents. For Pitt to have avoided early pitfalls so far this year is already more than they had done in the non-conference portion of the schedule during the Paul Chryst era.
Speaking of Conner, what's been the biggest difference in the run game without the ACC player of the year?
Mostly consistency. Pitt has had other players step up, including the current starter, redshirt freshman Qadree Ollison. Ollison is fourth in the conference in rushing with 559 yards but has also seen his share of struggles, too. He's had big games against Youngstown State and Virginia Tech, but has also been very pedestrian in the team's other four contests, averaging just under four yards a carry. The Panthers have also had consistency issues with their other two backs, Darrin Hall and last year's backup, Chris James, who have both suffered some injuries. Pitt just misses that threat of a monster running performance every time out that they had with Conner.
That's not to say those guys have been terrible or that Conner was absolutely invincible. On a per game basis, Ollison is actually averaging the same number of yards per carry that Conner did last year (5.9). But that was on the strength of a huge opener where he rushed for more than 200 yards against FCS foe Youngstown State and he has been trending downward since then. I would be surprised if he were still that high by the end of the season.
One of the biggest changes for the Panthers has been a more efficient passing game -- at least from this point of view. What does Nathan Peterman bring to the table that Chad Voytik did not?
Many of us felt that Chad Voytik was, for whatever reason, on a very short leash coming into the year. After playing well in the second half of 2014, he basically lost his job after one game into this year - a game in which the team's best receiver, Tyler Boyd, was suspended and not even on the field. Peterman hasn't been lights out, but that said, he has really grown into the job. He had some early problems, but even during games that where he struggled a little, he still has shown the ability to move the ball downfield.
One of the issues I saw with Voytik was his desire to lock onto Boyd on passing downs. Pitt still hasn't developed a consistent No. 2 threat after Boyd, but Peterman spreads the ball around and has been utilizing the tight ends, running backs, and at times, other receivers, quite a bit this season. He's now gone three games without an interception and looks really poised most of the time. It's his job to lose and while some fans think Voytik was given the hook too soon, it can't be disputed that Peterman is the team's best option right now.
Frosh DB Jordan Whitehead is an unexpected (or maybe more expected than we think) force through six games. What do you guys like about him so much?
Whitehead was the team's top recruit in 2015 and one of the best they've had overall in the past five years or so, so it isn't a huge surprise that he's playing well. But I think most would say that he's even exceeded the lofty expectations many people had of him. He is the team's leading tackler, which at safety is saying something, and the guy is just all over the field. He leads in assisted tackles, too, which shows you he just has a very good nose for the ball and is usually around the play. He doesn't have the turnovers yet but those will come. He's making plays and is also third on the team in tackles for a loss. Overall, he's a very athletic and disciplined player that plays beyond his years.
Who's one Pitt player operating under the radar who could have a big game against the Orange?
He hasn't been too under the radar, I suppose, but one guy I could see breaking out in this one a little is quarterback Nathan Peterman. Syracuse's pass defense is 95th in the nation and his season-best this year is only 222 yards. I could see Pitt trying to air it out a little more since he's had some games under his belt. More importantly, I think he's shown them that they can trust him a little more since he hasn't thrown a pick in quite a while. Having his best passing day of the season doesn't seem like too big of a reach to me.
What part of this Syracuse team scares you the most? Least?
Facing another dual threat quarterback is something they have to be careful with. While this past weekend against Georgia Tech was a lot different since they run the option, Justin Thomas still made plays for them. Pitt's defense needs to limit quarterback Eric Dungey and keep him from making big plays.
I'm also concerned a little that Syracuse pretty much has their backs to the wall. We look at what they've done the past three weeks but while they haven't been very good, the fact is they're still .500 and only 1-1 in the conference. They very much are still playing for their season and will be looking to make some noise. Factor in that as a now-ranked team, Pitt sort of has a target on its collective back. Pat Narduzzi said this week he doesn't expect the team to play any differently but it still will be interesting to see how they react to being ranked for the first time since the Dave Wannstedt era.
Finally, this has the look of a classic trap game for Pitt. The Panthers' next two contests are going to be not only big games, but big-game atmospheres at home. First, there's a Thursday night tilt against a (for now, anyway) one-loss North Carolina team, which could have big ramifications in the Division. After that is a potential top ten opponent in Notre Dame. Pitt needs to make sure they're not looking past the Orange.
All of that said, one thing I do expect to see is the Panthers put points on the board with the Syracuse defense struggling a little. And with Pitt's defense playing reasonably well, I also expect to see them have a chance to contain the Orange offense.
The Panthers make it 6-1 at the Carrier Dome by _____.
Taking care of the ball and limiting Syracuse's big plays on offense.
Syracuse gets back on track with an upset over Pitt by _____.
Forcing a couple of turnovers, rattling quarterback Nathan Peterman, and maybe making a play on special teams.
Prediction time: Who wins this not-at-all-rivalry game?
Pitt fans have seen too many of these instances where the Panthers have dropped the ball and given away momentum, but I don't see it here. Pitt has gotten past its weaker opponents and survived a challenging road schedule, which saw them travel to Iowa, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech in their past four games. Seeing them come so far only to lose a very winnable game just doesn't seem all that realistic to me. Pat Narduzzi has these guys playing well and he's made so much noise about keeping them focused this week despite everything going on with the rankings and leading the Division. While we still need to see what they do against the next level of competition, I'm encouraged by what we've seen. Combine that with a Syracuse team that's not playing well right now and it's too difficult for me to envision an upset here. I'll go something like 34-24, Pitt.