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Syracuse vs. Pittsburgh preview: Five things to watch

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Hopefully we’re watching the Orange score a big upset en route to a surprise bowl bid.

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

It’s been a rough couple weeks for the Syracuse Orange football team as they’ve fallen from 5-4 to 5-6 on the season, and need one more win to clinch bowl eligibility — though also have just one more game to pull that off. Standing in their way are the Pittsburgh Panthers, fresh off clinching the ACC’s Coastal title and looking to finish the year strong heading into the conference championship game.

Obviously that’s a lot to overcome, and we’re not making predictions here (that’s a separate piece later today). But while you’re watching Syracuse take on Pitt on Saturday, here are some things you may want to keep an eye on.

John: Can Garrett Shrader get going on the ground again?

When looking at what’s gone wrong in recent weeks, you can start with the offense — and specifically, the production Syracuse hasn’t been getting out of the quarterback position. Shrader’s thrown for a combined 174 yards over the past three games, which becomes more problematic when paired with 191 on the ground (and a good chunk of that in garbage time). We don’t need Shrader challenging the 200-yard mark. But if this offense is going to move the ball, it can’t just be on Sean Tucker — especially against a Pitt run defense allowing just 2.96 yards per carry. There needs to be some guesswork for the Panthers, whether that’s improved play-calling, just improved play from Shrader or both.

Andy: Can Syracuse control the game state?

Look, we know what Shrader isn’t, and falling behind big to teams early forces the QB into situations where he’s being asked to do things he simply can not. We know what works for the Orange offense: option football with a healthy dose of Tucker and some short passes to keep the defense honest. Can Syracuse do that down 21? Sure, but as we’ve in the past weeks, the offense has struggled to commit to that strategy, or implement it with any confidence. I’m not saying Syracuse needs to come out early and go up 14-0, but they do need to establish early that they are committed to what works, and make sure Pitt doesn’t go up too big too early.

Kevin: Empty the clip

Football coaches love to hold a special play for the right situation but Syracuse cannot play this game conservatively. Pitt is going to score some points so the Orange need to approach this game like they need 30+ points to win. So don’t hold anything back. Any formation, any personnel grouping, any player who can help Syracuse get this 6th win should be used. I don’t recall the last time that Syracuse tried some kind of trickeration but this is the week to roll them all out. A loss by any measure ends the season so there’s nothing to gain by trying to keep it close. Be aggressive on fourth downs. Don’t settle for field goals and call plays with no regrets.

Christian: Let it fly defensively

Remember last season when the Syracuse defense praise flying around, hitting hard, playing fast and causing turnovers? Take a quick scroll through your mind on how many turnovers Syracuse has caused this season. If you’re not remembering a lot, you’d be correct. In fact, the Orange are tied for dead last in the FBS with only five takeaways this season. Everyone loved playing in Tony White’s defense last year because of the athletic freedom everyone had. We’re not seeing that this season. Time to let it fly, especially against the best quarterback Syracuse has faced this season.

Steve: How does Pitt’s defense pace the Orange?

If the Syracuse offense can get something remotely going on the ground or, god-forbid, in the air, how will Pitt’s defense be able to adjust to shut them down, and will the Orange respond? We’ve seen teams do a full scale Brian Ward-ing against some of the Orange offensive performances, and they may need that to happen with Randy Bates and the Pitt defense if Syracuse is getting out of this with bowl eligibility. If Shrader’s legs can get going enough to throw the Pitt rhythm off, there’s a chance they hang in a boatrace, but if they get shut down, it’s a real tall order.