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Syracuse vs. Pittsburgh: five things to watch

Can Syracuse get over the sting of losing at Clemson in time to earn a road win at Pittsburgh?

Syracuse v Pittsburgh
Syracuse fans would like to forget this one from 2016
Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange (4-1, 1-1) looks to move past the heartbreak of last weekend’s loss at Clemson with a trip to western Pennsylvania and a match-up with the Pittsburgh Panthers. And while this Saturday while undoubtedly lack the hype last Saturday had, beating the Panthers (2-3, 1-1) could be vital for the Orange.

The importance lies in the context: good teams defeat bad teams.

Is Syracuse a “good” team?

The last time Syracuse won a game at Pittsburgh Paul Pasqualoni was head coach of the Orangemen. A lot has obviously changed since 2001. Potentially the most noticeable difference being how SU used to travel to Pittsburgh or West Virginia or Boston College and occasionally win. Those Orangemen had trouble staying with the elites, like Miami, but they were usually competitive with programs that were on equal footing.

Then Syracuse lost its balance and fell down in the murky muck of college football for most of the last 15-plus years. In fact, since joining the ACC in 2013, SU has won just four road conference contests. The last victory away from the Dome in ACC play came in 2016 (at Boston College). Defeating the Panthers doesn’t really prove that this team is “good,” but it does give further evidence of tangible progress and it shows SU can play well away from home. Some big changes.

(It also continues to drive up the Give-A-Damn meter of the fair-weather followers.)

Can Syracuse’s run-stop catch up with its pass-rush on defense (A.K.A. Sackacuse)?

Most Syracuse fans will never get the images of Clemson’s Travis Etienne running roughshod over the Orange last weekend. The Sophomore gashed the fatigued Syracuse defense late in Death Valley, eventually rushing for 203 yards on 27 carries. Etienne routinely was able to get through the second level and past Orange linebackers, churning up big yards in the Clemson comeback victory.

While Etienne’s performance was buoyed by some gassed defenders and some big boys blocking for him, it did point to a developing problem for SU head coach Dino Babers and company. Defensively as a team Syracuse is allowing 163 yards on the ground per game, which is close to 4.5 yards per carry. Now, Pitt doesn’t have Tony Dorsett walking through that door, but senior back Qadree Ollison has had a couple of decent games and the Panthers do rank 54th nationally in rushing as a team. Here’s guessing that Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi will look to grind the Orange with a slow-down-the-game rushing attack. The back seven of the defense will be expected to stop the run early and late.

Speaking of Sackacuse, how will Panthers QB Kenny Pickett handle the pressure?

Pickett has thrown an interception in four of Pittsburgh’s five games this season, and leads an offense that ranks 119th nationally in yards through the air. Yikes. We can all surmise that the Panthers will try to lean heavy on the run, but to beat a team like Syracuse, with a high-powered offense, will likely mean going to the air on some crucial plays. Can Pickett avoid making mistakes while avoiding the relentless front four of Syracuse’s defensive line?

SU ranks 17th nationally in sacks and is tied for fourth in interceptions. Defensive coordinator Brian Ward has taken his fair share of criticism, and his unit still gives up too many big plays, typically on the ground, but what he has been able to do with his players through six games is remarkable. Looking at it on paper (or on screen as it were), Pickett could be in real trouble Saturday if his running backs aren’t able to help.

Syracuse v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Will Syracuse’s brilliant special teams take a hit without long snapper Matt Keller?

Through five games, Syracuse is third (tied) in punt return defense and is sixth in net punting nationally. Further, one of the heros in Syracuse’s near miss at Clemson was punter Sterling Hofrichter, who boomed the ball all over the the field at Memorial Stadium. Keller, a senior who has been the main long snapper throughout his time on campus, suffered a season-ending injury in that loss to the Tigers.

In his place will be true freshman Aaron Bolinsky. When Keller missed time in camp this August recovering from an injury Bolinsky was able to get some time with the starters on special teams. But how will he handle being The Guy on a regular basis? Long snappers and holders on placement kicks aren’t much thought of until there are some issues. For a unit that’s played nearly flawlessly so far this season, will a mistake or two be noticed, will it be costly for Syracuse?

The scoreboard

The last time these two met in Pittsburgh, one of the strangest games ever broke out. The Panthers beat the Orange, 76-61 and several records were shattered in the process. That ‘16 game set the mark for most combined points scored in a D1 or FBS game. Needless to say, it was also the most points a Syracuse team had ever allowed in 125 years of playing the sport.

The basketball team played South Carolina that day and those two only combined for 114 points.

Truthfully, though, Pitt hasn’t scored 76 points in its last three games this season, so I’m not expecting another record-breaking shootout on Saturday. Still, Orange fans, you might want to prepare yourself now for what will be some truly horrific flashbacks during the telecast.