I’ve had many stones thrown my way over 15+ years of covering Pitt athletics from the fan base for having had the audacity to attend Syracuse University.
And worse yet, to have the brazen willingness to admit it on air and in print.
I’ve always bristled at this because, well, would you prefer I lie? Where should I say I went to school? Harvard? Oxford? Triangle Tech? You pick.
And, especially when it comes to the Orange football team, I hardly think I could be qualified as a honk for the team. No one has been more critical and readily admitting of SU’s place in the lower echelon of the Power 5 college football ranks than I have been.
It’s been 16 years since the Orange have seen a nine-win season. In those 16 years, only three times have the Orange finished above .500.
It hasn’t been pretty. And I’m well aware. I’m similarly aware that Pitt has won 12 of the last 14 matchups. And I’m pretty sure Pitt will win again Saturday to make it four in a row.
So is that enough for full disclosure and proof that I’m not trying to plant the SU flag on atop the Cathedral of Learning?
OK, good. So with that preamble being stated, here’s a specific … let me rephrase … the only match up concern that could pose a threat to Pitt from Syracuse.
“They’ve got four legit receivers who can play anywhere in the country,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi stated on Monday.
He’s right. Amba Etta-Tawo, Ervin Philips, Steve Ishmael, and Brisley Estime. All four rank in the top 21 of the ACC when it comes to receptions. Pitt doesn’t have any. Etta-Tawo has 81 (8th best in the country) and Phillips has 79 (10th best in the country). They sit in first and second place atop the ACC.
Etta-Tawo is the bell cow (or as Narduzzi might say, the “cow bell”). The Maryland senior transfer is also tied for the conference lead with nine receiving touchdowns and leads all of the ACC in receiving yards with 1304 (6th best in the country). Phillips is seventh with 715 (Pitt is lead by Jester Weah in ninth at 696).
Etta-Tawo is a 6’2” 202 pound physical presence. Ishmael, a junior, is 6’2” 210. Estime and Philips are both under six feet. But they are quick and shifty. And Estime leads the country in punt return average. They also have Sean Riley who leads the country in kickoff return yards (but that may be more a function of how many times they’ve had to return kicks due to a poor defense. The Orange have even allowed more points than the Panthers 387-366)
And Pittsburgh’s defensive backs have been … well, uh … they were much better against Duke than they have been most of the season, let’s put it that way. So maybe that will give them some confidence against the versatile Syracuse receiving bunch.
“You guys talk a lot about confidence. And I’ve got a sheet in my office. And it’s got a list of the top ten quarterbacks and top ten receivers that are draft eligible this year and we’ve played four of the top ten QBs and 5 of the top 10 receivers. And, it’s like, ‘I wonder who else has played these guys.’ But I think our guys have had confidence. I don’t think they’ve ever lacked confidence.”
But the Panthers have still allowed more passing yards than all but two other schools in the country (Ball State & Arizona St). So can their relative success against Duke (the Blue Devils threw for just 243 passing yards) carry over to Saturday?
One helpful fact for the Panthers is that in order for one to catch a ball, someone else has to throw a ball! And the Orange will likely be without starting QB Eric Dungey again on Saturday. He’s doubtful thanks to a head/neck injury sustained against Clemson back on 11/5. ‘Cuse likely will turn to Zach Mahoney again. Since Dungey’s injury, Mahoney is just 31-65 for 394 yards over 2+ games despite all those weapons. He has 3 TDs and 3 interceptions in that time.
Is one glaring match up issue enough to tilt the result of a one football game? In some cases, yes. In this case, no. It may be high scoring. It may be cause for some stomach rumbling moments from Pitt fans fatigued by seeing receivers run through their team’s secondary. But Pitt should win comfortably and find themselves in a decent bowl game (perhaps against WVU?).
And Syracuse will turn to basketball season.