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Syracuse vs. Pittsburgh preview: Five things to watch

What are the Orange’s keys to potential victory in their ACC home opener?

Syracuse v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange (2-3, 0-1) return home after two weeks away to face teh Pittsburgh Panthers (2-3, 0-1) on homecoming. You can call it Orange Central if you’d like, but we certainly won’t based on principle alone.

Last these two non-rivals met, they were setting an FBS scoring record. While SU’s defense may have improved since then, I’m not sure that Pitt’s has. Either way, both teams are desperate for a win here to keep postseason hopes alive.

So what should we be focused on going into Syracuse’s game against the Panthers this Saturday? We identify five things below:

1. Syracuse must take advantage of the Pitt secondary

Last year, Zack Mahoney exploited the Panthers’ defensive backs to the tune of 440 yards passing and five scores. This year, Eric Dungey has an opportunity to do the same thing against a group that’s currently allowing over 263 yards per game. But the issue is more with the team’s safeties than its cornerbacks, which is something Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi mentioned when addressing the media on Monday.

The Panthers have allowed 25 passing plays of 20 yards or more, which is tied for the most in the country. They’re close to the lead in 30- and 40-yard passing plays allowed as well. Syracuse’s offense hasn’t been as explosive as what we witnessed last year, but it has improved (against better defenses) in recent weeks. If Dungey has time to throw, he’ll be looking over the top more than any game thus far.

Syracuse v North Carolina State Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

2. But can the Orange protect Dungey?

SU’s offensive line has been under pretty steady attack for three of the season’s five weeks so far, and even lesser pass-rushing teams like CMU and Central Connecticut have managed to get some push. Syracuse has allowed 12 sacks already, which is in the top third of the country. And you know Dungey’s agility has saved him from falling victim to a few more.

The one saving grace in this game -- and an essential part of any Pitt win scenario -- is that the Panthers have not been all that capable on the defensive line this season. Part of that could be a product of the offenses they’ve faced (Penn State and Oklahoma State are fast, while Georgia Tech doesn’t throw). But if they were going to turn things around in the pass rush, this could be the contest they choose to do it. The SU offense crumbled in the face of an aggressive blitz vs. MTSU. Pitt’s likely taken notes.

3. Can we please spread third quarter’s success around?

Syracuse has scored 59 of its 165 points (36 percent) in the third quarter this season, and without crunching the numbers, it’s fair to say that the largest portion of our total yardage has been amassed there too. That’s been a large part of our ability to come back in games this year, true. But THAT’s caused by our slow starts all season.

On opening drives, SU has just 10 points total, and the only touchdown was against Central Connecticut. The other opening drives? A field goal (vs. CMU), a five-yard loss and a punt, plus two interceptions these past two games. Starting slow has become a habit, an worse, it’s led to points by opposing teams. In a season where the Orange have lost by single-digits three different types, that sort of early swing does create the gap.

Syracuse v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

4. Don’t let Quadree Henderson loose with the football

Pitt’s not all that explosive on offense, replacing several weapons (and a whole scheme) from last season. But one player that should scare Syracuse is Henderson, who plays wide receiver, runs the ball and handles returns. He had four return touchdowns in 2016, and already has one this year. For once, Cole Murphy kicking the ball out of bounds might be a good thing...

Whether he gets the return chances or not, though, it’s probably worth keying in on him more as a ball carrier in the backfield. Pitt doesn’t really have a running game, but Henderson’s the exception. His 16 carries for 94 yards are the team’s best average (5.88 yards per attempt), and it’s pretty likely he’ll be used in that capacity again vs. SU.

5. Is this the Orange pass-rush’s breakout game?

Replacing several starters this year, Pitt’s offensive line has taken a bit of a hit (and as a result, so has QB Max Browne). The Panthers have allowed 16 sacks already this season, and as the year goes on, that number’s likely to spike. So could that increase happen against Syracuse?

SU has been down a couple defensive linemen in Kendall Coleman and Josh Black, but the line has still managed pressure. What they haven’t done -- and didn’t even when those sophomores were healthy -- is turn that pressure into sacks. The Orange have just four sacks this year, despite significant pressure and pretty high tackle-for-loss numbers (31 total). Against a weak Pitt line, this could be the breakthrough they’ve been working toward.

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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.