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Syracuse vs. Pitt football preview: Q&A with Cardiac Hill

At least your cat mascot looks somewhat sane.

Iowa Hawkeyes vs. Pittsburgh Panthers Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images

On Saturday, the Syracuse Orange look to get back in the W column, facing off against long-time rival but not rival, Big East-now-ACC neighbor, the Pittsburgh Panthers.

Since we’re not Pitt fans, we asked one what we can expect on Saturday. Cardiac Hill’s Manager/Editor Anson Whaley some questions, he gave some really good answers.

For those of us who haven’t watched Pitt since the Penn State game, how bad is it? Just a tough opening stretch or is this team bad?

Definitely a rough start to the season. I think when people saw the schedule, 2-3 was not ideal but certainly a possibility, chalking up losses to Penn State and UCF, beating Albany, and splitting GT and UNC. The problem Pitt fans are having is how bad some of those losses have been. The Penn State score was somewhat misleading because it was close at halftime and once the team got behind, it looked like they simply threw in the towel and Penn State added some late scores. But the showing against UCF was disappointing because they were never in that one at all. Then you get North Carolina in a game that you expect to win and you can’t manage a victory there.

You maybe look at the Penn State game and throw that one out but the others are harder to explain. As a result, you get what looks like a pretty bad football team at the moment. I don’t know that Pitt is quite as bad as they’ve looked but with a schedule including five ranked teams, the idea that this could be a down year was acknowledged by a good number of folks. I didn’t expect this but 2-3 at this point isn’t something I considered out of the realm of possibility. The front seven is a veteran group but Pitt lost their best two guys in the secondary to the NFL. On offense, they lost their best receiver and left tackle as well. Not to mention that starting a true sophomore with about two games of playing experience coming into this year wasn’t ideal. It looks very much like the rebuild that most people were hoping to avoid.

This “rivalry” hasn’t seen ‘Cuse win in the 412 since October 13, 2001. Is this something you guys are actively thinking about? Or just neurotic ‘Cuse fans?

I actually wasn’t even aware of that until I saw the game notes that Pitt sent out to the media this week, to be honest. I knew Pitt had won the majority of the games since that time but didn’t think Heinz Field was the death trap for Syracuse that it seems to be. Others less aloof than myself probably have but I really haven’t.

Syracuse V Pittsburgh

The Pitt Quarterback rountable from last year led to Kenny Pickett starting this year. Has there been noticeable improvement in his game, or are you still looking for that next step?

A lot of people were on the Kenny Pickett train from the start of the season based on his leading the team to a win against No. 2 Miami in the finale last year. For the record, I think he can ultimately be a good quarterback but he’s still clearly learning out there. I was cautiously optimistic about him but even that was more based on what others seemed to be pushing.

Head coach Pat Narduzzi probably learned a valuable lesson in hyping up expectations too high. He called his shot, so to speak, saying the team would go to the ACC championship this year when he was speaking at a kickoff luncheon. He also claimed that Pickett had the best camp of any quarterback since he’s been here. That group included Nathan Peterman who is playing (admittedly, poorly) in the NFL now.

I don’t know. I don’t dispute what Narduzzi said at all about his camp. It’s just that game action and camp are two different things. Fans, including myself, probably ran with the idea that he looked great and expected more out of him so far. I think he will eventually be pretty decent but he’s got a ways to go still. What he very clearly needs are just reps right now.

When I think of Pitt offense, I think of at least one NFL quality set of hands. Who’s Pickett’s favorite target so far?

I think it’s possibly becoming Indiana transfer Taysir Mack. Mack looks more like a deep threat than a guy in the mold of, say, Tyler Boyd, who would pile up catches. And the two, I’m sure, are still developing chemistry. But Mack is maybe the most skilled receiver out there with Maurice Ffrench running a close second. I’m still not positive either of those guys are true No. 1s but those are the two most likely to make waves the rest of the year.

An honorable mention here goes out to Shocky Jacques-Louis who, despite being a freshman, might actually be the top pure athlete on the team. The coaches are slowly working him in and he looks like he could be a good one. I’m not sure he’s ready to carry the load in any particular game but he’s a guy that you could see make a big play here and there.

Pittsburgh v Virginia Tech Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

You’ve had to face a bunch of run heavy teams early this year. ‘Cuse wants to run the ball more, so how’s the defense been against the run so far?

Somewhat surprisingly not all that good. I think the numbers are inflated a little just because they’ve faced Georgia Tech already, and they’re always good for what, 300 yards? They also faced Miles Sanders at Penn State, who’s having a nice year. But overall, I think the run defense has underwhelmed.

As I mentioned, Pitt’s front seven has a lot of experienced guys, including mostly upperclassmen. That was really looked at as the strength of the team and while they’ve not been terrible against the run, there’s room for improvement there.

Keeping with defense, the key to beating Syracuse is slowing Eric Dungey down. How should we expect Pitt to handle his mobility?

If the game against UCF last week and McKenzie Milton is any indication, not well. Pitt really struggled against him and, while they did okay against Trace McSorley of Penn State (145 passing yards, under 50% completion, and 36 rushing yards - but three touchdowns) I can see them having problems with Dungey. I think Pitt can do okay against mobile guys that aren’t real good passers but Dungey’s certainly capable enough in that regard and a big day against Pitt wouldn’t surprise me terribly.

The secondary is a mess and I’d be shocked if Syracuse wasn’t at least throwing a lot early to see what they can get away with there. Pitt maybe blitzes a little less from the linebacker position and tries to keep him honest but, I mean, who knows. I can see them trying actually blitz more and help the secondary out by giving him less time. How Pitt approaches him is going to be something to watch.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction time: do we get a repeat of 2016 (scoreboard breaks) or last year (far more reasonable scoreline) and who’s walking away the winner?

I’m actually completely bucking the trend of everyone I know and picking Pitt here. Full disclaimer: I don’t think the Panthers are a better team. But my reason for going with Pitt here is that their backs are completely against the wall. It’s not only the players, either. Pat Narduzzi’s seat is getting warmer by the day and I honestly think the team is embarrassed about some of the performances they’ve had this year. I fully expect them to put all the proverbial eggs in the basket on Saturday and go all out to win this one.

I’m sure Syracuse isn’t exactly unmotivated with the way last week’s game panned out but Pitt is in a much more desperate spot and if the team loses this one, fan interest for this year will drop off a cliff. Not because Syracuse isn’t a good team this year but because they’ll be 2-4 with several tough games remaining. Maybe I’ve got that wrong. It’s possible this team is already emotionally drained and is lying down the rest of the way. But Narduzzi has insisted these guys are still giving 100% and he’s made it clear that effort hasn’t been the problem.

If the game was on the road, I’d probably be more inclined to go with Syracuse here. But I’m calling for a Pitt upset this weekend, something to the tune of 31-28.


Thanks again to Anson for taking the time out to answer these. Be sure to follow Cardiac Hill and check out the site too, for all things Pitt.