At 2-3 on the season, we’re at a critical juncture in the Syracuse Orange football season this Saturday. Similarly, the Pittsburgh Panthers (2-3) also find themselves taking on water while pushing for the six-win plateau. A loss for either would put a bowl bid in serious doubt.
Since we’re certainly not Pitt fans (thankfully), we went ahead and asked a fan about what to expect in this game. Anson Whaley — who you should follow on Twitter -- from SB Nation’s Cardiac Hill joins us to chat all about the Panthers. We answered questions over there as well.
When we last saw each other, we were setting an FBS record for points in a game. Has that contest changed the look of Syracuse-Pitt matchup? Or is it just the same non-rivalry for now?
I don't know that it's really changed things. To me, it was sort of anomaly. Pitt had a really good offense last year and Syracuse had a really receiver vs. one of the worst pass defenses in the country. The score didn't make sense, of course, but when you combine those two things, a shootout at least seems possible.
I don't believe most Pitt fans consider it a rivalry game just like I doubt most Syracuse fans see Pitt as a rival.
To me, playing Syracuse is certainly different from playing teams like NC State, Duke, etc., just because they've played each other a lot more. But that doesn't really make it a rivalry. Maybe someday that changes - and I hope it does. Rivalry games are just a lot of fun. But in general, rivals hate each other and Pitt fans just don't hate Syracuse's football program. Something would need to happen to kind of spark that. So with that said, tell Dino to say something dumb this week. Let's make this happen.
Obviously replacing your starting quarterback and running back is no easy task. How do you feel Pitt's doing on offense this year with new contributors and a new offensive scheme?
Not so good. Pitt scored 42 points against Rice last weekend and I imagine they would have done the same against Youngstown State in the opener had they opened up the playbook. But they've really struggled on offense both in the run game and in passing the ball when they've played any decent team. I'm really interested to see how they attack this week's game. They played three really good teams (I'm convinced Georgia Tech is really good this year, FWIW) and two pretty bad ones. There's not really been any in-between. Playing a team like Syracuse, that will no doubt be a challenge, will tell us a lot about where this year is headed.
Pitt has had their biggest problem at quarterback, already undergoing two changes between grad transfer Max Browne and sophomore Ben DiNucci, who's more of a dual-threat guy but inconsistent. Browne has the job for now after a big day last weekend with 400+ passing yards, but he's really struggled to move the ball against any decent team he's faced. Pitt has had a problem running the ball, too, for the first time in a long time. The offensive line lost two guys to the NFL Draft but it's still been unreal how bad the running game has been. The offense will be suspect until either Browne becomes more effective or until the running backs and offensive line figure things out.
Pat Narduzzi was known for defense, but his Panthers teams haven't been. What's the disconnect that you see?
It's mostly talent. Narduzzi's defenses have played some aggressive coverage styles, often leaving corners matched up on their own. And even when they're supposed to get safety help, they don't always get it. On the replays, you often see guys going in the wrong the direction, hesitating, etc. Pitt has also had some misfortunes from their biggest recruits.
Safety Jordan Whitehead, the top recruit in 2015, was suspended for the first three games this year and missed several games last year. Damar Hamlin, the top 2016 kid, missed most of last year with an injury. This year's top recruit was safety Paris Ford and he had academic issues, missing most of training camp. Narduzzi doubts he'll even play this season.
Also, Narduzzi is just really now starting to get his guys in there. He came in just before the 2015 class so he didn't have much time that year to assemble guys he wanted. He had 2016 but those guys are mostly redshirt freshmen and the 2017 kids this year are mostly redshirting. I'm still fully convinced the defense will get going but it's going to take time for him to get his own players in there and ready.
Related: Is there a single player on Syracuse's offense that gets you more concerned than the rest, given your defensive issues?
The big one is Ishmael, obviously. After seeing what Amba Etta-Tawo did to the secondary last year, that's the one guy Pitt has to keep under wraps. But Ervin Phillips is right there and also had a monster game last week, so it's really both of those guys. Giving up 100 yards to one is fine. But if both have big days, I don't see how Pitt can win. Unlike last year, Pitt's offense is just not that good.
Name one unsung Panthers player that we should probably get a bit more familiar with.
Defensively, one guy I'm really starting to like is cornerback Dane Jackson. He's not lights out by any means and is only a sophomore but he's getting better. That said, if Syracuse has a big passing day this weekend, don't @ me. He's undersized, so even when in position, he can still get beat on a jump ball. He has work to do for sure but he's getting better every week. He leads the team in interceptions and pass breakups, and I think he'll be really good in another year.
How's Pitt's bowl outlook for this year? You guys still thinking six wins are a possibility?
At this point, I think six would probably be maxing out. Maybe the offense improves and that changes but right now, it's hard to see any more than that. Virginia Tech and Miami both look very doubtful and North Carolina State won't be easy, even at home. The easiest games left are probably Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, and Virginia, and none are gimmes at this point.
I can still see Pitt getting to six wins but there's also a strong chance this turns into a 4-5 win season. This weekend is a big, big game for the Panthers' bowl hopes.
Prediction time: Which team wins this one, and why?
I'm going to take Pitt here in a close game, despite the odds. The passing game got into a little bit of a rhythm for the first time last week, which hopefully gives them some confidence. If Syracuse had a big pass rush, I'd go with them. But the Orange (like Pitt this year) haven't gotten much pressure on opposing quarterbacks and when Browne has time to throw, he's really accurate. He's mostly a statue back there so if Syracuse didn't end up with a few sacks, I'd be shocked. But he had some pressure last week and still completed 28-32 passes (three were drops).
Pitt is only 2-3, but given the schedule, that's what they should be. They faced one team contending for a national championship, one team in the top 15, and a third just outside the Top 25. I know fans are disappointed but I also think that this is still a halfway decent team.
Officially, I'll say something like Pitt 31-27 but a two-touchdown win for Syracuse wouldn't surprise me in the slightest since it's going to come down to the passing game. If Pitt can't contain Syracuse's receivers, they not only lose, but could lose ugly.