It comes down to this. The Syracuse Orange (4-7, 2-5) need a win over the Pittsburgh Panthers (7-4, 4-3) if they have any hope of making it to a bowl game this year. Las Vegas isn’t overly optimistic about it. That’s understandable considering the fact that Eric Dungey is pretty unlikely to play.
Below, Anson Whaley from SB Nation’s Cardiac Hill (which you should follow on Twitter) joins us to discuss everything you’ll need to know about Pitt. We answer some questions over there too, which you can read here.
Nice job on the Clemson win a couple weeks back. How has the fan base reacted to such a big upset?
It's been really big for the fans. Pat Narduzzi has done a solid job here but wasn't able to grab a signature win last year. This year, in knocking of Penn State and Clemson, they've got two of them. Most fans were just hoping the team could hang with Clemson and make a game out of things. Winning certainly wasn't on the radar. As I said in the recap of the game, this wasn't an impossible feat. It's Pitt, not a team from the Sun Belt or anything. But it was a huge deal and the fans have treated it as such.
It seemed like expectations were pretty high for Pitt entering the year. Has Pitt fallen short or met what you'd assumed of this team entering the year?
Expectations were high in the respect that there was hope Pitt could contend for the Division. And honestly, a game out of first place, they've done that. But to most, this was a seven/eight-win team this year with the schedule, which included Clemson, Oklahoma State, Penn State, UNC, Virginia Tech, Miami, etc. The big unknown was that no one anticipated they'd have the types of injuries they have.
In the opener, they lost a starting linebacker for the year and lost a second starter for several games this year. They were without their No. 1 receiver for about half of the year. The No. 3 receiver last year, and a contender to start, has been out all year. They lost a starting cornerback for a few games...then one of the backups, who is still out. A few weeks ago, they lost both starting defensive tackles - ON THE SAME PLAY (one of them is still out and the other is playing hurt). Two weeks ago, they lost their best player in the secondary in starting safety Jordan Whitehead for the year. The top backup at running back was hurt against Clemson and out last week with his status unknown. That's all on top of several other starters/key guys have missed a game here and there, so it's been a brutal year.
Then, look at who they've beaten with in-state rival Penn State and then Clemson on the road. They are also without a bad loss. When you add it all up, I have to say they've exceeded expectations. They still have a shot at nine wins, and to do that with the big wins and the injury woes would be special.
Pitt's secondary has struggled quite a bit this season. What's the cause of these problems?
Just talent. Narduzzi relies on getting pressure and having cornerbacks often in one-on-one coverage. The guys Pitt has have made some plays but have often come up short. If he is going to rely on leaving those guys alone, he needs more talent there. They looked much better last weekend against Duke and as he alluded to in a press conference, Pitt has faced some really good quarterbacks - something like four in the top ten on the Draft board or something like that, is how he phrased it.
Against weaker passing teams, they've often been salvageable. Villanova scored only seven points and the secondary held Virginia, Duke, and Marshall to about 250 yards per game. Those aren't great teams, obviously, but the point is to show that they've had some days that were not complete dumpster fires.
Your athletic department has gone all-in on nostalgia in the last year or so. What's caused the return to some old traditions and aesthetics?
It's largely due to the fanbase making its voice heard. Fans have been begging for the script back for years and the athletics department listened through surveys, etc. New athletics director Scott Barnes also created a fan experience committee to solicit ideas and feedback, and I'm pleased to be a part of that group. The athletics department, plain and simple, is very interested in what the fans have to say.
A big part of the problem the school has had related to branding is that they had so many logos. Even when Pitt first announced the return of the script, it was only for football. Barnes has done away with all of that and everything related to sports is much more uniform. Fans are already asking for the alternate uniforms to be brought back full-time. I don't know if that will happen and the fanbase is sort of split on that, anyway. But the point here is that the fans have been a big part of the push when it comes to the aesthetics.
In terms of tradition, Narduzzi has been very intentional about reaching out to former players, getting them involved, using them as honorary team captains, etc. Pitt has always done some of that but Narduzzi is very into getting former players on board, sending them packages, and keeping in contact with them.
You may have noticed Syracuse's new-look offense earlier in the year, but obviously things have dipped without Eric Dungey. Are you glad you won't be facing the Orange attack at full strength?
Certainly! Pitt has problems with capable quarterbacks this year and if he were playing, it would have the look of a shootout - something Pitt fans have seen a lot this year. There's little question that the outlook is brighter for Pitt without him back there.
Despite the aforementioned step back in production of late, there are still some dangerous players on this team. Anyone you're particularly concerned about?
Anytime you have a wide receiver that's one of the best in the country, that's a huge issue. And when you pair that player against a mostly-down secondary, it's a recipe for disaster. Even without Dungey in there, Amba Etta-Tawo against the Pitt secondary is an ugly matchup for the Panthers. And given that it's quite possibly going to be his last game, he'll be looking to have a huge day.
He'll catch some passes against Pitt to be sure. What they need to do is try to limit the amount of damage he causes and keep him from scoring long touchdowns and running wild.
The Panthers win big, just like Vegas predicts if _____.
The defense keeps Syracuse from a huge passing day. Pitt's offense has scored points against everyone, so that isn't my concern. The concern comes if Syracuse can beat up the secondary and score points along with them. I'm still not sure the Orange have enough firepower even if that happens, but it would make things much, much closer.
SU scores its second major upset of the season if _____.
They force some turnovers and keep scoring points. Quarterback Nathan Peterman is pretty good at limiting mistakes, but he's also been a little more mistake-prone lately, throwing three interceptions in four games, including a bad pick six last weekend. Pitt has also lost some fumbles this year. Peterman's had three of them (and six fumbles total) and playmaker Quadree Henderson has also lost three. A few breaks Syracuse's way could go a long way in helping them.
Prediction time: What happens in this one and how?
If we were still in the Paul Chryst/Todd Graham era, I'd say that Syracuse would stand a better chance. But Pat Narduzzi has been ruthless about not losing games the team should win and they simply have not been upset under his watch. Some of the results, like getting blown out against Navy in last year's Bowl game, have been disappointing. But as a whole, Pitt comes ready to play. A lot of people were talking about a potential letdown against Duke last week and Pitt won by six touchdowns.
And with it being senior day, at home, and possibly the last game for James Conner, I just don't see any chance of a letdown here. Syracuse has had problems defensively and it's hard to see them stopping Pitt's No. 15 scoring offense that puts up about 40 points per game. The Vegas line is pretty high, but I don't think a blowout win is out of the question, either. I'll say Pitt wins something like 41-21.
Thanks again to Anson for taking the time out to answer these. And be sure to follow Cardiac Hill on Twitter, and head on over to Cardiac Hill on to read more about Pittsburgh (athletics, not the city).