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Syracuse football 2019 opponent preview: Pittsburgh Panthers

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Hello again, not rivals.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we took a look at one of the most highly anticipated games on the 2019 Syracuse Orange football schedule: a Thursday night matchup with the N.C. State Wolfpack in early October down in Raleigh. State’s replacing their quarterback just like we are, and the nationally-televised game should be a good measuring stick of how both teams are progressing with their respective new signal-callers.

Perhaps you’re not as excited about looking at this year’s opponents, since it’s only May. But since Syracuse football won 10 games last year, and I run this place, we’re talking about them anyway. The Orange have plenty of challenges ahead — some of those greater than others. Today, we take a look at SU’s week eight foe:

Pittsburgh Panthers

School: University of Pittsburgh

Mascot: Panthers

#BRAND Slogan(s): #HailToPitt/#H2P

Alternate #BRAND Slogan Suggestions: #HailToNotHavingYourOwnStadium OR #SomehowCoastalChamps

Recommended Blog: Cardiac Hill

Conference: ACC

Coach: Pat Narduzzi, fifth year. Eventual attempted murderer Pat Narduzzi played linebacker at Youngstown State and then Rhode Island in the late 1980s, before winding up on the Miami (OH) staff as a grad assistant in 1990. He was coaching linebackers at Rhode Island by 1993, and was the defensive coordinator for the Rams from 1997-98. Narduzzi jumped back up to the FBS level as linebackers coach for Northern Illinois from 2000-02, then hopped back over to the RedHawks for a one-year stint as DC before taking the same job at Cincinnati from 2004-06. That earned him Michigan State’s DC for 2007, and he’d stay there through 2014, when he took the Pitt job. Since arriving at Pitt, he’s 28-24 with three bowl losses and (somehow) a division title.

2018 Record: (7-7) (6-2)

Recapping Last Season:

After losing three of their first five games, Pitt looked to be in trouble — as did Narduzzi’s job, potentially. But after the Panthers (begrudgingly) managed to upset Syracuse at Heinz Field, Pitt won four of their next five and wound up with a surprising 6-2 record to win the Coastal Division. They’d get smacked around by Clemson in the ACC title game, then suffered a 14-13 loss to Stanford in the Sun Bowl. Pitt also managed to be ranked for one week in late November, before losing to Miami, 24-3.

Last year, Pitt’s offense was good enough, though far from actually “good.” The Panthers’ attack ranked 71st in S&P+ and 98th in yards per game. However, the run game was top-20 with nearly 228 yards per game and almost 5.6 yards per carry, plus 30 touchdowns on the ground. Obviously that’s a much prettier picture — unlike the passing game, which failed to contribute much. Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall combined for 2,357 yards on the ground, and even QB Kenny Pickett chipped in 464 there. Through the air, Pickett had fewer than 2,000 yards to go with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions.

The Panthers’ defense was a bit better, ranking 53rd in S&P+, and putting up similar rankings in terms of total yards and passing yards allowed, respectively. They were less effective against the run (178 yards allowed per game), but did collect 85 tackles for loss on the year — good for 42nd in the country. Pitt applied decent pressure all year, ranking top-40ish in sacks, but also forced just 18 turnovers.

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

2019 Season Outlook:

Things start pretty tough for Pittsburgh, hosting Virginia and UCF, while visiting Penn State (and also hosting Ohio) in the first four weeks of the season. Closing with Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Boston College could help them rebound, but the Panthers are from a lock to repeat as Coastal champs... and could very easily struggle to even make a bowl game against this difficult slate.

While Pitt’s rushing attack really drove their success in the latter two-thirds of 2018, they’ll need to figure out how to replicate that without its primary contributors. Ollison and Hall are both gone, which will be big shoes to fill even if you believe in replacements like A.J. Davis (4.19 yards per carry) and V’Lique Carter (8.08 yards per carry). The Panthers replace four of five starters on the offensive line, but just one of the top receiving options (Rafael Araujo-Lopes). Pickett also returns, so that at least provides some stability amid quite a bit of change.

Over on defense, three of the top five tacklers are gone, though Damar Hamlin (team-leading 90 stops) and Elias Reynolds (49) are both back. A good portion of the team’s tackles for loss are back, including Rashad Weaver’s 14 (among them, 6.5 sacks), as is every interception from 2018. As DC at Michigan State, Narduzzi’s strength was typically with the secondary, though that’s rarely been the case at Pitt. It could be the case this year, however, with every top defensive back except for Dennis Briggs back.

Syracuse Game Date: Friday, October 18

Location: Carrier Dome, Syracuse, N.Y.

Odds of Orange Victory: 60 percent

Very Early Outlook vs. Syracuse:

Pittsburgh flipped the switch against a Syracuse team that was caught off-guard following a huge game against Clemson. This time around, the Orange will get some extra rest coming off another big game (NC State), though Pitt gets 13 days of its own to prepare. Without last year’s top rushers and most of the O-line, the Panthers probably take a step backward in 2019. That should help SU’s solid defensive front take advantage, with the linebackers really being the deciding factor. This far out, I’ll go with SU to take the win as the defense creates opportunities for the offense to keep putting points up on the board (even against an improved Pitt defense). But as always, it’s going to be much more difficult than it should be on paper.