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Syracuse vs. Pittsburgh: Solving Panthers Pass Defense Will Be Tall Task

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Eric Dungey has been very good this season. Pitt's pass defense has been better.

Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

I was skeptical earlier in the season, but not anymore: Syracuse's Eric Dungey is really good. He's not the smartest quarterback yet, as he has to learn to protect himself and get out of bounds or slide when he runs, but he's been incredibly efficient. And at this point, it's not a fluke.

Dungey has now thrown nine touchdowns to one interception in addition to running for three touchdowns. He leads the Atlantic Coast Conference in passer rating. His 8.8 yards per attempt also leads the ACC.

Last week, he did more than enough to beat Virginia; he simply didn't get enough help from his defense. But against Pittsburgh on Saturday, it's going to be difficult for Dungey to repeat that success. For it to happen, Syracuse might have to adjust its approach offensively.

That's because Pittsburgh, for a number of reasons, is one of college football's best teams against the pass. The Panthers' 167.5 passing yards allowed per game ranks 12th in the Football Bowl Subdivision. They also rank fourth in defensive passing success rate, limiting opposing offenses to just a 27.4 percent success rate.

Pitt has a number of nice pieces in its secondary, including cornerback Avonte Maddox and safety Terrish Webb, who have combined for four interceptions and 10 pass break-ups.

But the Panthers' success against the pass stems from more than just those playmakers. Pittsburgh is excellent at creating pressure, which obviously aids its pass defense. Pitt ranks third in the country in sacks per game with a total of 22, led by linebacker Matt Galambos' four sacks and defensive end Ejuan Price's 3.5 sacks. And Pitt also averages 7.8 tackles for loss per game, good for 19th-best in the country.

It's a defensive approach Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi brought with him from Michigan State, where he was defensive coordinator from 2007-14. There, his Spartan defenses typically ranked near the top of the FBS in sacks. Just last season, they had the 13th most sacks in college football.

On the flip side, SU hasn't been great against pressure. Syracuse hasn't given up an exorbitant number of sacks, but its offensive line still hasn't done a great job protecting Dungey. Far too often does he face pressure almost immediately in the pocket, giving him very little time to make decisions with the football.

Syracuse offensive coordinator Tim Lester seemed to imply recently that it's not an offensive line problem; instead, Dungey needs to be quicker with his decisions. The quarterback has been frequently hit in the pocket, and Lester told Syracuse.com's Stephen Bailey that it often happens on five-man protections when Dungey is supposed to get the ball out quickly but doesn't.

Those protections are also called "empty" protections, because there's no running back or tight end in pass protection. So if the defense decides to rush six, one of those blitzers will go unblocked and have a free path to the quarterback, making it crucial that said quarterback gets rid of the ball quickly to the open receiver.

Even if Lester's correct, it would seem to make more sense to think more about abandoning those pass protections than to blame Dungey when things go wrong. If Dungey is better with six- and seven-man protections, why not use them more frequently?

Because, clearly, if there's an area Dungey has struggled in, it's against the blitz. Not coincidentally, he had his worst game this season against South Florida, which ranks 24th in the country in sacks per game -- better than any other team Dungey has faced. The Bulls had three sacks that game.

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, will be a whole different animal. The Panthers will likely try to pressure the hell out of Dungey. If it were me calling the plays, I might try to get him some additional protection.