Weekly Preview: Pitt vs. Syracuse
THE MATCHUP: PITT (7-4) VS SYRACUSE (4-7)
WHEN: 12:30 P.M. EST
WHERE: HEINZ FIELD, PITTSBURGH, PA
HOW TO WATCH: WTAE; ACC NETWORK
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK
The past two weeks have Panther fans feeling pretty good. First, Pat Narduzzi earned that “big win” many have yearned for since his hire, defeating the second ranked Clemson Tigers on the road. Then, Pitt followed its “big win” by not losing to Duke, a team that they were expected to beat. The Syracuse Orange visit Heinz Field Saturday afternoon, and a victory in the regular season finale can keep this wave of elation rolling right into the bowl game.
The Orange enter Saturday under first year head coach Dino Babers, a former running backs coach at the University of Pittsburgh. After firing Scott Shafer last November, Syracuse hired Babers away from Bowling Green, where he led the Falcons to a 2015 MAC Conference Championship. Under his guidance, the Orange hold a 4 and 7 record, with a key victory over Virginia Tech, and some understandable losses to top-25 teams like Louisville, Clemson, and Florida State. Even with a win Saturday, Syracuse will fall short of that significant sixth win, leaving a bowl game highly unlikely.
Syracuse’s up-tempo air raid offense, which ranks 58th nationally in total yards-per-game, relies heavily upon the success of its passing attack. Pitt has faced many talented receivers in 2016, but none as productive as Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo. Etta-Tawo, a 6’2” 202-pound redshirt senior, is amongst college football’s statistical elite this season; his 1,304 receiving yards rank 6th in the nation, his 7.4 receptions-per-game rank 8th, and his 9 touchdown receptions are tied for 22nd. Considering that the graduate transfer from Maryland registered just 938 total receiving yards in three seasons as a Terrapin, Etta-Tawo’s lone season in the Orange and Blue has been a true breakout campaign.
Holding just two less receptions than Etta-Tawo is 5’11” 176-pound junior Ervin Phillips. Phillips has 79 receptions for 715 yards and 6 touchdowns as the Orange’s other primary option at receiver. The Panthers’ secondary put forth their best performance of the season against Duke, but may find it difficult to replicate that success against a team averaging 310.5 passing yards-per-game (13th in the FBS). If one factor will work in Pitt’s favor though, it is Syracuse’s uncertainty at quarterback.
At this time, the quarterback who will deliver the ball to Etta-Tawo and company remains undecided. Sophomore Eric Dungey started the first nine games of 2016 before sustaining an undisclosed injury versus Clemson on November 5th. Per Dino Babers, the team is awaiting a second opinion on Dungey’s injury prior to ruling him out against Pitt. When healthy, Dungey is averaging 297.7 passing yards-per-game, ranking 12th in the nation and 2nd in the ACC. The 6’3” 207-pounder has completed 230 of 355 passes for 2,679 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions overall. Dungey also contributes on the ground, ranking second on the team in rushing with 125 carries for 293 yards and 6 touchdowns.
When Dungey exited against Clemson, Syracuse initially called upon Austin Wilson as his replacement. However, 6’2” 206-pound junior Zach Mahoney has received the nod at starter the past two games after Wilson failed to impress. In his two starts, Mahoney has completed 30 of 61 passes for 386 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. His average of 193.0 passing yards-per-game as the starter is over 100-yards less per game than when Dungey starts. Although Coach Babers has not ruled Dungey out of Saturday’s matchup, he does anticipate Zach Mahoney leading the Orange in the season finale.
Whoever receives the start at quarterback will operate behind an offensive line allowing 3.18 sacks-per-game, tying them for 119th in the country. Considering that the Panthers’ pass rush is tied for 11th nationally in sacks, the Orange’s quarterback may find little time to deliver the ball downfield.
On Monday, Pat Narduzzi indicated that Pitt will prepare for more than just passes thrown by Syracuse’s quarterback:
“…it’s hard to slow down that passing offense,” he said. “They’re going to just dink you and throw the short routes all day, line up in empty and go. They’ve got a lot of trick plays. Shoot, they’ve had maybe six other skill guys besides quarterback throw passes, so we’ll prepare for all those. They’ve got a lot of guys throwing passes. They’ve got all kinds of tricks that we’ll prepare for.”
With uncertainty surrounding their quarterback situation, one might question if the Orange will look to establish the run. However, their rushing offense ranks 122nd nationally with 109.7 yards-per-game, and seeing that Pitt features the nation’s 4th ranked rush defense, it is unlikely that the Orange will begin producing in their final game of the season. When they do run the ball, expect sophomore running back Dontae Strickland to receive a majority of the carries; he leads the Orange in rushing with 142 carries for 503 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Defensively, Syracuse ranks towards the bottom of the FBS in most major statistical categories. Opposing teams average 488.1 total yards and 35.2 points against the Orange each game, which rank 119th and 108th in the nation, respectively. Syracuse allows 278.4 yards-per-game through the air (117th nationally), and 209.7 yards-per-game on the ground (96th nationally).
Syracuse’s defense may struggle to stop the run, but they feature a productive trio of tacklers in Parris Bennett, Zaire Franklin, and Daivon Ellison. Bennett, a 6’0” 208-pound junior linebacker, is tied for 24th nationally and 4th in the ACC with 102 total tackles. He also holds 5.0 tackles for loss, 3 forced fumbles, and 1 interception in 2016. Franklin, a 6’0” 230-pound junior linebacker, has 96 tackles, 10.0 tackles-for-loss, 2.0 sacks, 1 forced fumble, and 1 interception. Daivon Ellison, a 5’8” 177-pound sophomore strong safety, has 85 tackles, 1 forced fumble, and 1 interception. In Pitt’s James Conner, Bennett and crew will face one of the top running backs in college football for a second week in a row. Last week against Florida State, Heisman candidate Dalvin Cook torched Syracuse’s defense for 225 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 28 carries. Conner, the ACC’s new career leader in both rushing and total touchdowns, will look to do the same.
Chris Slayton and Rodney Williams are two additional names to monitor on Syracuse’s defense. Slayton leads the Orange’s front four from the defensive tackle position. The 6’4” 296-pound redshirt sophomore has 31 tackles, a team-high 4.0 sacks, 9.0 tackles-for-loss, and 2 forced fumbles. Williams, a 5’10” 185-pound free safety, has registered 54 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, 1.0 sack, and a team-high 2 interceptions.
One last matchup to watch is Syracuse’s kick return coverage versus Pitt’s Quadree Henderson. The Orange allow 24.16 yards-per-return on kickoffs—ranking 114th in the country—and have conceded a pair of touchdowns this season. Henderson, the nation’s leader in touchdowns on kick returns, is a tough player to limit for even the better coverage units in college football.
This week’s statistical comparison:
|Points Per Game||39.3||33.3||22.45||35.18|
|Yards Gained Rushing||2609||1412||1536||2569|
|Yards Lost Rushing||245||333||329||262|
|Average Yards Per Rush||5.0||3.2||3.0||5.0|
|Average Yards Per Game||214.9||98.1||109.7||209.7|
|Average Yards Per Pass||8.6||8.1||7.4||8.7|
|Average Yards Per Catch||14.4||12.9||11.8||14.9|
|Average Yards Per Game||214.7||334.3||310.5||278.4|
|Average Yards Per Play||6.3||6.0||5.3||6.6|
|Average Yards Per Game||429.6||432.4||420.2||488.1|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||30-889||52-1059||53-1102||31-749|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||12-195||26-225||16-302||24-163|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||7-162||5-48||9-93||12-185|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||29.6||20.4||20.8||24.2|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||16.2||8.7||18.9||6.8|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||23.1||9.6||10.3||15.4|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||14-7||14-9||15-7||19-8|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||62-533||71-618||89-679||57-550|
|Average Per Game||48.5||56.2||61.7||50.0|
|PUNTS – YARDS||52-2215||55-2226||74-3112||58-2350|
|Average Yards Per Punt||42.6||40.5||42.1||40.5|
|Net Yards Per Punt||36.0||36.6||39.9||37.7|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||32:03||27:57||28:04||31:56|
|4th Down Percentage||64%||65%||57%||53%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||36-261||9-57||16-112||35-202|
For Syracuse, the biggest injury to report is definitely that of quarterback Eric Dungey. Dungey is listed as doubtful, although he remains on the weekly depth chart. Defensive end Jack Pickard is also listed as doubtful, while wide receiver Devin Butler is out. Defensive lineman Steven Clark, safety Antwan Cordy, cornerback Juwan Dowels, and offensive lineman Jason Emerich were previously lost for the season.
Pitt’s injury report is as follows: Amir Watts is listed as probable; Tyrique Jarrett is listed as questionable; Zach Challingsworth, Chawntez Moss, Phillipie Motley, Tre Tipton, and Jordan Whitehead are listed as out.
The Panthers’ season finale kicks off at 12:30p.m tomorrow. The game will be aired on WTAE, and can be heard on 93.7 the Fan. As always, Pittsburgh Sports Now and its staff will provide in-game updates and observations via Twitter.
Pitt and Syracuse have met on the field every season since 1955. The Panthers lead the all-time series 37-31-3, and enter Saturday as 24.5-point favorites.
As previously stated, a win for Syracuse on Saturday is unlikely to result in bowl eligibility. Though a bowl game remains possible, it would require a series of unlikely events for the Orange to receive postseason participation. A win would, however, end their three-game losing streak and provide Dino Babers with momentum heading into the offseason.
Pitt proved against Duke that they can win the games that they are supposed to win, and in convincing fashion. However, they also proved at Clemson that it is never wise to underestimate a well-coached team in need of a win