Despite a bout of terrible injury luck once again, the Syracuse Orange (4-7, 2-5) still have a shot at making a bowl game. For that hope to come to fruition, however, they’ll need to defeat the Pittsburgh Panthers (7-4, 4-3) on Saturday. Pitt’s played pretty well this year, and even upset Clemson. SU also hasn’t played incredibly well outdoors this season. The Panthers started out being favored by 23.5 points, and that’s gone up a little since.
So what should we be on the lookout for going into Syracuse’s tough matchup with Pitt? We identify five things below:
1. Exploit the Panthers’ secondary
Syracuse isn’t moving the ball on the ground anyway. But unlike previous weeks against more difficult opponents, Pitt provides a weakness along the back of the defense to help SU out a bit there. The Panthers have allowed more passing plays of 10 yards or more than all but two teams (and we’re not one of them!). Overall, they’re the 127th-ranked passing defense in the country, allowing 334 yards per game.
Those numbers are atrocious, and even without a strong throwing option at quarterback, Syracuse should be able to find some holes. Pitt’s young secondary will need to find a way to cover the full collection of Orange receivers, and in all likelihood, someone’s going to be open. If it’s Amba Etta-Tawo, he could be end zone-bound at least once in the contest. We just have to hope Zack Mahoney can stay upright long enough to complete passes.
2. Mahoney must complete passes quicker
Last week, Mahoney hung in the pocket too long at times, locking onto receivers and allowing the pocket to collapse around him. This offense’s bread-and-butter is short screens, and when he found Ervin Philips and Brisly Estime, the team was able to move the ball much better.
Of course, that’s one part of the equation, however. SU’s offensive line also needs to find a way to protect Mahoney long enough to give him a chance to throw. Last week, Florida State recorded eight sacks on the day. Pittsburgh may not be leading the nation in sacks, but they’re also not far behind either. The Panthers are tied for eighth in the country with 36 total. Ejuan Price is one of the top pass rushers in the FBS. This could get ugly unless something changes from previous weeks. Perhaps the Orange run more two-tight end sets to help increase protection, though that would remove a potential target for Mahoney to throw to.
3. (As always) Stopping the run
This one’s a recurring bullet each week, as Syracuse fails to really make much headway here. The Orange are allowing 209 yards per game on the ground (96th in the nation), and last week showed what teams can do to SU if they just want to lean on the run game. Florida State was messing around with the passing game a bit in the first half, but then went all-in on the run with Dalvin Cook in the third quarter to put the game away. Cook had 226 yards, while the team had well over 300.
Pitt may not have Dalvin Cook, but they do have James Conner and Qadree Henderson, and the nation’s 31st-best rushing attack. That’s more than enough to strike some fear into SU, who are pretty banged up on the defensive front. Steven Clark was already out for the year, and today’s injury report and Jake Pickard was listed as doubtful for this week as well. Expect the linebackers to get pulled into run-stopping more (at the risk of exposing the middle of the field to the pass).
4. Success on third down
Syracuse was actually in the top third of the country on third down for much of the season while Eric Dungey was still healthy. That figure’s gone down quite a bit in recent weeks, but Pitt might create an opportunity to rebound there. The Panthers are good, but not great, at making stops on third and are ranked 63rd in the country there.
The key for SU, as is typically the case, is success on first down. Syracuse’s lack of success on first (just six first down plays of five yards or more last week, and just three the week before) sets up predictable second and third down play-calls, and a struggle to move the ball against a staunch pass-rush. So maybe you relabel the bullet above “success on first down.” But if the Orange have a shot, they’re going to need to convert more than they have in recent games.
5. Slow down Pitt from finishing drives
Where the high-scoring Panthers have excelled tremendously this year is finishing drives inside the 40. They’re the fourth-best team in the country at 5.49 points per trip there, which is brutally efficient. Over on the defensive end, Syracuse allows 4.62 point per trip (84th in the country), mostly buoyed by the team’s red zone efficiency.
Syracuse has a top-40 red zone defense (even more impressive given the amount of opponent tries inside the 20), but that only tells a fraction of the story. Where they struggle, and Pitt excels, is converting those trips from the 21- to 40-yard line into points. In fact, this also speaks to SU’s penchant for allowing big plays. Teams, whether they’ve figured it out or not, don’t need to get into the red zone (where SU’s defense has less ground to cover) to score. And might actually fare better avoiding the red zone altogether.
Whether the Orange play the risky game of letting the Panthers into the red zone, or address their issues of allowing big plays from that 21- to 40-yard range, something has to give to stop Pitt. They average 39.3 points per game and Syracuse allows 35.2. This is no easy feat.
These are some starting points for conversation, but plenty of other angles to take a look at, too. Any more key matchups or narratives you’re focused in on in advance of Syracuse’s game against Pittsburgh? Weigh in below.