There has been a sentiment that the Syracuse Orange football program lacks a defining rivalry. For many years, the men’s basketball team had Georgetown and UConn in the old Big East, and football had West Virginia (even if the ‘Eers didn’t necessarily care as much). In the ACC, basketball wants Duke, but the Blue Devils are taken. Football is Boston College, primarily, though the teams are rarely good at the same time.
But if you ask head coach Dino Babers and his players, there is definitely another, real rival — and they’re bound for the Dome on Friday night: the Pittsburgh Panthers.
“Before I came, I wouldn’t be able to tell you why it’s going to be a close game,” Babers said. “Then you look at the games that we’ve had and every last one of them has been a memory.”
Those close games extend back even further than the Dino Babers Era. In the seven meetings between the Orange and Panthers since 2012, five of them were decided by a touchdown or less (and just two of them have been SU wins). It’s a trend that has also lasted through multiple personnel and coaching changes on the other sideline as well.
“With coach (Mark) Whipple being their offensive coordinator now, they’re not as much ‘run run run,’” Babers added. “They’re in spread sets, they’re doing a lot more stuff, their defense is bringing a heck of a lot more pressure than traditionally they’ve normally done and it’s almost like they’ve flip the page and they’ve gone off and moved on to something else.”
The latest of those tight matchups was last year’s game at Heinz Field, where SU suffered a 44-37 loss in overtime. That loss was one of the few blemishes on a 10-win 2018 campaign; something that stung for a lot of the players.
“That last play last year, that one hurt even more than the Clemson loss the week before” said wide receiver Sean Riley, who has played against Pitt in each of the last three seasons. “I can’t wait for the first play. I might just go hit somebody.”
Looking back on the experience against the Panthers the last few seasons, Riley and others agree that there’s one constant that the Orange can always look forward too.
“They always play tough and that’s brought a lot of close games the last few years,” Riley added.
Another senior on the other side of the ball, defensive end Kendall Coleman, agrees.
“They’re probably one of the most aggressive teams we’ll play all season long,” Coleman said confidently.
One last thing that Babers says sparks the rivalry — perhaps in a less visible way in the context of the games being played — is the two schools fighting over the same recruiting turf in the Northeast area, and how it pits old fires against each other.
“It’s a lot of the same recruits,” said Babers. “It’s also a lot of the kids being from the same area, a lot of the kids playing against guys in high school and having an opportunity to have one more shot at them.”
Syracuse takes its latest shot at Pitt starting at 7 p.m. ET this Friday from the Dome. The Orange beat the Panthers in ‘Cuse back in 2017, but this year’s Pittsburgh team has won three straight coming in (though all by three points or less).