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

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Let’s learn more about the Panthers.

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

The entire Syracuse Orange football season comes down to a single game on Saturday, as SU needs to beat the Pittsburgh Panthers in order to make a bowl game. If that wasn’t enough pressure already, Pitt’s a top-25 team this year and already won the Coastal. PLUS, it’s been rough sledding against the Panthers for nearly two decades now. You’re thrilled about this, I’m sure.

Since we’re not Pitt fans, we went ahead and asked one about what to expect from the Panthers on Saturday. Mike Wilson at Cardiac Hill provides responses to our questions below.

There was optimism for Pitt heading into the season, but did any Panthers fans see a Coastal title coming? Especially after the WMU loss?

Despite a 6-5 season in 2020 and the losses of some key defensive players, there was some optimism that Pitt could have a pretty average eight-win season. But no one saw a Coastal title coming based on last year’s results and the pieces Pitt was returning. Even Kenny Pickett had been pretty average until 2021, so his vast improvement and Pitt’s rise were almost unfathomable back in August.

There was also some pretty vocal pessimism about Pat Narduzzi and Mark Whipple, and that escalated after the loss to Western Michigan. A lot of Pitt fans hopped on the “fire Narduzzi” bandwagon after that one, and for whatever reason, a vocal faction of the fanbase wanted Whipple out as well despite the fact that his offense was averaging 44.3 points per game through those first three games. So no, I wouldn’t say many fans envisioned a Coastal title after that loss, either.

Which opponent would you rather see in the ACC title game?

As a fan of offense, Wake Forest. With Pitt and Wake Forest ranked third and fourth in the nation in scoring offense and this being the year of the quarterback in the ACC, it seems like the most appropriate way to crown a champion. Also, while Pitt beat Clemson earlier this year, Clemson is a dangerous team to face late in the season, and it has a defense that could stifle Pitt. So if those two teams met again, I’m not sure Pitt would come out on top.

Entering the season, Kenny Pickett seemed like a game manager that could make big plays here and there, but he’s really progressed in 2021. What’s been the biggest change for him?

At the individual level, it seems like he’s been more goal-oriented. After he was projected to go in a late round of the 2021 draft, Pickett spoke with Peyton Manning about his options, and Manning asked him if he thought he was a late-round pick. Pickett said he didn’t, and since then, he has been determined to boost his draft stock and prove himself to scouts.

At the team level, Pickett’s improvement has coincided with the emergence of two capable tight ends in Gavin Batholomew and Lucas Krull and some improvement by Pitt’s receivers, who struggled with drops last season. That, plus some more reliable contributions from running backs Israel Abanikanda and Rodney Hammond, has allowed Pickett to flourish at the helm of a multidimensional offense this year.

Do you have any concerns about the Panthers’ defense this year? Pitt hasn’t necessarily shut opposing offenses down this season.

Yeah, there are definitely some concerns. The defense ranks second in the nation in sacks and fifth in tackles for losses, so the pressure is there. But despite that, the unit is still giving up 24.1 points per game, which ranks outside the national top 50. That’s mostly due to the secondary, which lost some key pieces in the offseason and has gotten scorched for 265.1 yards per game in 2021. But with Pitt also ranking eighth in the nation in run defense, there’s at least some promise that the team can shut down run-heavy opponents.

What’s your take on Syracuse football from afar? How’s Dino Babers doing relative to what you’d expect?

Right now, Syracuse looks to be in a place many Pitt fans are familiar with from the Narduzzi era: It’s got the talent to compete but not always to close, and that’s led to some excruciatingly close losses. For the Orange, it was three straight losses by three points in 2021. For the Panthers, it was two back-to-back losses by two points or fewer to NC State and Boston College in 2020. Unfortunately, Syracuse also looks to be farther away from evolving into a contender than Pitt was last year, based on its recruiting and recent history.

With Babers, I think you have to respect a coach who figured out how to get Syracuse to 10 wins despite the barriers to success that exist for schools like Syracuse and Pitt. With both schools on the periphery of the Power Five in terms of recent football success and neither situated ideally for recruiting, my expectations for both Babers and Narduzzi were low at the start of their tenures. But with a win over Clemson and a 10-win season, Babers outperformed my initial expectations. It’s also commendable that he stuck with the program instead of cashing in on that success. But with that said, he could also post his fifth losing season in six years with a loss on Saturday, so the baseline Babers has established is concerning to say the least.

What’s your favorite and least favorite ‘Cuse-Pitt game of recent vintage? Obviously most of these games — even the close ones — have sucked, but just curious what Panthers fans think of this series lately.

Again, I’m a fan of offense, so my favorite is the 76-61 Pitt win from 2016. In a season in which Pitt upset Clemson and beat Penn State, that still may have been the strangest game I saw all year. It might also have been the quintessential game of Matt Canada’s brief tenure as Pitt’s offensive coordinator.

My least favorite was the game from the following year when Pitt quarterback Max Browne went down with a career-ending injury. That was a close 27-24 loss for Pitt and Narduzzi’s only loss to Syracuse, but the issue wasn’t the outcome so much as the loss of a former five-star quarterback who seemed to be hitting his stride.

Any unsung Pitt players that Orange fans should get a little more familiar with?

The Pitt defensive line is still pretty impressive despite the team’s reputation for being all offense this year. Habbakuk Baldonado and Calijah Kancey stand out as leaders in that position group, with a combined 22 tackles for losses and 14.5 sacks, and it should be interesting to see how Sean Tucker fares against them.

Which Syracuse player concerns you most, other than Sean Tucker?

Since Pitt’s success is dependent on Kenny Pickett staying upright, I’ll go with Cody Roscoe. Like Pickett, he’s a guy with something to prove. In his case, he said earlier this year that he wanted to prove he belongs at the FBS level after transferring out of McNeese State, and with 12.5 tackles for losses and 8.5 sacks, he has.

Prediction time: Who wins this one and why?

Pitt wins 42-20 because I don’t see the Syracuse defense knocking Kenny Pickett and the Panthers too far off their average of 43.9 points per game. Meanwhile, Syracuse’s recent passing-game struggles will likely lead to over-reliance on Sean Tucker and Garrett Shrader as a runner, and with Pitt not allowing any running back to hit the century mark so far this season, relentless running has not led to success against the Pitt defense this year.

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Thanks again to Mike for taking the time to answer these. Follow the site on Twitter and check out Cardiac Hill for all things Pitt-related as well.