clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Syracuse Football 2016 Opponent Preview: Pittsburgh Panthers

New, 2 comments

Last one. Get excited!

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

As you already knew (since we're pretty far into these), we've been taking a look at all of the Syracuse Orange's opponents for this fall. The schedule is still as difficult as always. Just the same, we're choosing an optimistic outlook on each week, where possible. Today, we conclude with the:

Pittsburgh Panthers

School: University of Pittsburgh

Mascot: Panthers

#BRAND Slogan: "Hail to Pitt"

Alternate #BRAND Slogan Suggestions: "Home of team that won hockey." "No, the OTHER team that plays in this stadium."

Recommended Blog: Cardiac Hill

Conference: ACC

Coach: Pat Narduzzi, 2nd year. Outside of being revealed as a sadistic lunatic that doesn't care about people's allergies, it's been a pretty nice ride of Narduzzi at Pitt so far. He's taken a team that already ran the ball well and continued that. He's taken a capable defense and made it more aggressive even if not turnover-driven just yet. Pitt, for all its mediocrity and Birmingham Bowl streaks of late, is a program on very solid footing right now, and has the look (to some) of a team on the rise. In the wide-open Coastal, Narduzzi can quickly get the Panthers contending for a conference crown.

2015 Record: (8-5) (6-2)

Recapping Last Season:

As mentioned above, 2015 took on the characteristics of a breakout season for a program struggling for identity of late. Narduzzi arrived and seemed to remake the Panthers in his (and in effect, Michigan State's) image on the fly. The team played tougher in the trenches, better against the pass and ran the ball well -- despite losing star running back James Conner for the season in week one. Pitt, in year three in the ACC, looked every bit the part of a contender in the Coastal; so much so that they came within a handful of points of playing Clemson down in Charlotte. The bowl loss to Navy may have ended things on a sour note for Pitt, but that that shouldn't cloud anyone's view of a strong 8-4 regular season.

Last year's offense wasn't great, admittedly, from a production standpoint. But for some reason it was effective enough to get the job done repeatedly. Without Conner, the run game stepped back, yet still moved the ball well behind Qadree Ollison. Tennessee transfer Nathan Peterman came in at quarterback, and while he wasn't setting the world on fire by any means, he was a pretty efficient passer. Nearly 2,300 yards, 61.5 percent completion rate and 20 touchdowns (vs. eight picks) helped cement him as the starter. Tyler Boyd also did Tyler Boyd things to the tune of 91 catches, 926 yards and six scores (plus another 349 yards rushing).

The fact that the offense wasn't running up the score on teams was no problem for this defense. Pitt was top-40 in the country in total defense and rushing defense, and their figures as far as scoring and passing D weren't too far out from there either. The Panthers may not have reached Narduzzi defense levels yet in terms of truly shutting down the pass (they only had 10 turnovers last year). But the line made up for it by getting after the QB 36 times (19th in the nation). Even without turnovers, a lethal front four did a ton of damage all season.

2016 Season Outlook:

For much of the last decade, Pitt (in football and basketball) has seemingly haunted Syracuse. Now, that level of success may be spreading outside the one (non-rivalry) matchup with the Orange. Pittsburgh returns the large majority of its playmakers on both sides of the ball, with its primary departure being the aforementioned Boyd. But Peterman, Conner, Ollison, a very strong offensive line and receiver Dontez Ford (among others) are all back on one side of the ball.

Despite Narduzzi's stress on defense, the offense described above could be the team's biggest strength. Conner and Ollison have both rushed for over 1,000 yards in their most recent full seasons. Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson will get some All-America consideration on the line. Peterman, while adjusting to life without Boyd, has another year in the offense and what could be an even more capable line. Having more of a run game to support his efforts only serves to help more. He's not going to light the stat sheet on fire, but a QB who can move the ball and reduce mistakes is always a valuable commodity.

Defensively, Pitt will focus on an aggressive front four yet again, but the key to that is strong safety Jordan Whitehead. As a freshman, Whitehead accumulated over 100 tackles (six for loss), forced two turnovers, broke up six passes and scored three offensive touchdowns too. Between him and Avante Maddox at corner, this is a pass defense that's set to improve as these young players continue to grow into their roles in the scheme. If the Panthers defense can make strides, there's a lot to like about this team.

Syracuse Game Date: November 26

Location: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Penn.

Odds of Orange Victory: 35 percent

Very Early Outlook:

The most appropriate place for a 60-year rivalry no one cares about is a weekend few will watch it: just after Thanksgiving, the final Saturday of the regular season. Pitt could be starting at a second straight eight-win season by this point (or maybe more?). Syracuse could really be anywhere, season-wise, and that may dictate much of how this game plays out. Pitt's offensive line should be able to handle the Orange front, and the defense will be aggressive in getting after the SU offense -- no matter the speed at which it operates. The Panthers are typically (since GERG arrived) favored against the Orange and this year will be no different. Even if tempo helps close the gap, Pitt is still a likely winner here.