PITTSBURGH — There’s not a whole lot of secrets when it comes to what Syracuse is going to do with the football this Saturday when they host the Pitt Panthers at the Carrier Dome.
The Orange are going to throw. A lot.
Since head coach Dino Babers and offensive coordinator Sean Lewis came to Syracuse from Bowling Green before the 2016 season, the Orange have thrown more than just about anyone else in college football.
This season, they have 234 passing attempts, which is fifth in FBS and third amongst Power 5 schools. Last season, they finished 10th in FBS and fifth sixth amongst Power 5 schools. Only Washington State has attempted more passes over the last two years.
Last season, the Panthers and Orange rattled off 107 plays in a record-breaking offensive outburst. This season, Pat Narduzzi would like to find a way to contain the pass-happy spread offense of the Orange.
There are some positives for the Panthers. They’ll have Jordan Whitehead, Avonte Maddox, Phillipie Motley and Damar Hamlin back to full health. Dane Jackson has had a year of starting experience. Maybe more importantly, there is depth behind that group, with Therran Coleman, Bricen Garner and Damarri Mathis all gaining valuable experience over the first four games of this season.
Narduzzi said on Monday that defending a spread offense like Syracuse’s can be a cat-and-mouse game. If Pitt adjusts to something that the Orange are doing, they’ll stop and try to attack it in another. We’ve already seen that play out this season against Oklahoma State, which run an offense similar to Syracuse’s. After the Cowboys burned the Panthers with deep balls over the cornerbacks last season, they came out and attacked the safeties this season.
Of course, Pitt had to play that game without Whitehead, Hamlin and with Garner playing in just his third game. The safety spot was a weakness that the Cowboys exploited. Now, Pitt’s secondary is as healthy and deep as it’s been since Narduzzi took over.
“We’re coming into this more experienced. You have to learn from your mistakes. That’s part of having success, is learning from your failures.”
That means that not only will the Panthers have better players available, it will be a lot easier for them to make adjustments on the fly because of the experience level of the guys involved.
“I’m not going to give you the details, but it’s a lot easier when you have guys that can adjust to different stuff,” Narduzzi said. “Some guys, you just don’t even change anything. You just keep it the same, otherwise, it could get worse. It can always get worse. We tell our guys that all the time. We can make adjustments and make it worse. You need guys that know what they’re doing to make adjustments. It’s critical.”
Here’s Maddox, Jackson on Whitehead on the challenges the secondary will face against Syracuse.
FORD IN THE GARAGE
It doesn’t seem like Paris Ford is one of the options the Panthers are looking at as far as depth in the secondary. Narduzzi said before the season, it would take a “miracle” for Ford to see the field this year, and he reiterated that point extensively on Thursday:
“I love Paris Ford. He deserved to dress (last week). He missed all of camp. We usually don’t have guys that miss camp out there dressing that missed camp or came in when school starts, which is just about what he did.
“Every week, we get closer to saying, ‘Let’s just put him in, what the heck? What do we have to lose?’ He does a great job on the scout field. He loves the game. He’s a guy you love to coach. I don’t think we could put him in on defense right now, just because we haven’t had time to coach him. It’s not that he can’t learn, there’s just no time to teach. It’s just hard.
“I asked him a couple weeks ago, I think on the way to Georgia Tech, if we called Cover 4, and the receivers are really closed together, what would you call? He didn’t know, which I didn’t think he would. I just wanted to find out where he was and if he was paying attention.
“He’s a great kid. He’s going to be a phenomenal player and I would play him at receiver tomorrow or tailback, for that matter, because I think he could do it. You should see him as a punt returner. He causes our offense problems on the scout field. He had two picks in the team period just last week. He stole one away from (Maurice Ffrench) and made Ffrench look silly. He’s going to be a great player. He’s going to be really good. He’s as good of a freshman as I’ve seen and he loves the game. He’s always out there having fun.
“Every week, you want to play him and every week, I say, ‘That guy’s going to be a great player. Only a half season compared to a whole season? You’ve got to be crazy. You don’t want to use the guy. He’s going to be something special.
“If I get to use him, I want to use him all the time. He could be a punt returner right now. But, you want to seem him play one time a game and then he doesn’t know what he’s doing the other time? I want to get him out there. It’s not good for the kid. I’d be selfish if I did that, I think. If it was my son, you don’t want to waste a kid’s redshirt for a few plays a game.”