Welp, we’ve made it to the end of this series. Despite numerous doubts about whether or not the Syracuse Orange or any team actually plays college football in 2020, we still went week by week previewing every squad on SU’s 2020 schedule.
Last time, we took a look at what could be a resurgent Florida State team following an offseason coaching change. This week, we’re diving into the Pittsburgh Panthers, who are probably not a rival and play in an NFL Stadium named after ketchup (vomits). People mock us for playing indoors, yes. However, I present the Panthers to you as a potentially worse fate — despite their consistent recent success and possible sleeper status in 2020.
On Friday, we’ll post a link to all 12 opponent previews, just in case you happen to miss any of them in recent months.
#BRAND Slogan(s): Hail to Pitt (regularly shortened to #H2P)
Alternate #BRAND Slogan Suggestions: “Should Absolutely Be Judged for the Whole Ketchup Thing” OR “Heinz Field’s Other Team”
Recommended Blog: Cardiac Hill
Coach: Pat Narduzzi, sixth season
Connecticut native Narduzzi started his playing career at Youngstown State in 1985 and then moved on to Rhode Island to play out his last three years at linebacker. From there, he was a grad assistant at Miami (OH), then a wide receiver coach with the RedHawks before heading back to his alma mater through 1999 where he worked himself all the way up to defensive coordinator. While he was there, he also tried to kill Scott Shafer once.
After URI, he was a linebackers coach at Northern Illinois for a few years, then ran Miami (OH), Cincinnati and Michigan State’s respective defenses before getting the Pitt head coaching gig. In five seasons, he’s gone 36-29, made four bowls (lost three of them) and won a Coastal Division title. Narduzzi hasn’t been great, but also hasn’t been bad. He’s a better Steve Addazio, in some respects.
2019 Record: (8-5) (4-4)
Recapping Last Season:
Pitt started off the year going 1-2 against Virginia, Ohio and Penn State, looking either not impressive or mildly impressive in all of those games. From there, they reeled off four straight wins (also looking alright at best in all of them), then went 2-3 down the stretch to get to 7-5. Appropriately, they outlasted Eastern Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl by a score of 34-30. So, sounds like a Pitt season all around, no?
The Panthers’ offense was not incredibly effective, averaging 380.5 yards per game (87th in the country), and they only scored 21.2 points per game. That said, Kenny Pickett still threw for over 3,000 yards — but just 13 touchdowns vs. nine interceptions. Unlike most Pitt teams, this one wasn’t impressive on the ground. A.J. Davis ran for just 530 yards to lead the team. While he only averaged 8.85 yards per catch, it’s worth noting that Maurice Ffrench (damn that extra “f”) still caught 96 passes (though just four touchdowns).
On the other hand, Pitt’s defense was pretty great — I’d argue a first under Narduzzi, which is weird since that’s his specialty. The Panthers allowed just 313 yards per game (15th in the country) and only 22.5 points per game. They were an impressive 12th against the run AND had the second-most sacks in the country, with 51. That helped them succeed despite not forcing a ton of turnovers (just 14 on the year).
2020 Season Outlook:
A little bit easier schedule for Pittsburgh this year. They’ll host Notre Dame instead of visiting Penn State, while Syracuse comes to Heinz Field this time around. Also sub in FSU instead of Boston College. Marshall’s there instead of UCF too, plus Pitt’s potentially a better squad than last year. I’d say that’s a net positive for the Panthers.
Pickett finally seemed to come into his own a bit last year, but he’ll have to figure things out without Ffrench this year, who was certainly a safety valve in 2019. Fellow senior Taylor Mack caught 63 passes last fall, and was at least a little more of a downfield option with over 11 yards per reception. As always, Pitt has capable running backs with A.J. Davis and Vincent Davis (314 yards last year) both returning, and freshman Israel Abanikanda joining the backfield as well. It’s a veteran line in front of them too — led by Jimmy Morrisey, in particular — which may help see better returns than last year’s rushing total (or the 29 sacks allowed).
On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh brings back some of the league’s best defenders. Paris Ford had 97 tackles and 11 pass break-ups last year (3 INTs) and is arguably one of the ACC’s top two safeties. Defensive tackle Jalen Twyman was third in the conference in sacks with 10.5 last season and will team with edge rusher Patrick Jones (8.5 sacks) to contribute to a pretty impressive line. Damari Mathis also has All-ACC potential at corner, while the linebackers return a ton. This could once again be among the top 20-25 defenses in the country.
Syracuse Game Date: Saturday, November 28
Location: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pa.
Odds of Orange Victory: 30 percent
Very Early Outlook vs. Syracuse:
On the one hand, these games are usually close and I think Pitt’s offense could struggle to keep up with Syracuse’s. Still, this is a Panthers defense that should truly test the Orange offensive line and make Tommy DeVito and the offense work for every yard. If Pittsburgh can drag this one into the mud, it greatly benefits them. And while we’ve certainly seen these two teams have some high scoring affairs at Heinz Field to close the season (you’ll recall 2016’s record-setting 76-61 Pitt win), I wouldn’t bank on this one being similar. If Pitt keeps SU under 27 points, that should mean yet another Panthers victory, unfortunately.