THE MATCHUP: PITT (2-3) VS SYRACUSE (2-3)
WHEN: 12:30 P.M. EST
WHERE: CARRIER DOME, SYRACUSE, NY
HOW TO WATCH: AT&T SPORTS NET PITTSBURGH
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK
The Panthers put an end to their three-game losing streak last week by defeating Rice, an opponent they had not played since 1951. Now, they will look to even up their record against a familiar foe they have faced every season since 1955, the Syracuse Orange.
Many remember the matchup between Pitt and Syracuse last season, when the Panthers defeated the Orange 76-61 at Heinz Field in the highest scoring game in FBS history. Even if the points tomorrow do not flow like they did in 2016, both teams are seeking their first win of 2017 over a Power-5 opponent and should arrive ready to play.
Head coach Dino Babers returns for his second year at Syracuse’s helm. After introducing a new offensive scheme last year and playing 12 true freshmen on both sides of the ball, 2017 seemed to offer an opportunity for Babers to improve upon his four-win debut season. However, the year has not started as well as hoped for the Orange. Syracuse opened 2017 with a resounding 50-7 victory over Central Connecticut State, but fell at home to Middle Tennessee in week-two, 30-23. After defeating Central Michigan 41-17 in week-three, they have dropped two road games in a row to LSU and NC State. This weekend is homecoming weekend in Syracuse, providing added inspiration for a team that hasn’t defeated Pitt since 2012.
Under Babers, Syracuse employs an up-tempo, spread offense which coach Narduzzi called “very similar” to the Oklahoma State offense that torched Pitt’s defense in week-three. Implementing run-pass options to keep defenses on their heels, the Orange are averaging 460.2 yards of total offense per game, ranking them 34th in the FBS. The passing game is their undoubted strength, ranking 15th in the FBS with 317.0 yards-per-game.
Syracuse’s offense revolves around the success of quarterback Eric Dungey. Dungey’s 1,437 passing yards rank 12th in the FBS, with 7 touchdowns and 4 interceptions added to that total. In addition to his production as a passer, Dungey also features as the Orange’s primary ball carrier; his 68 carries, 277 yards and 7 touchdowns are all team-highs. The 6-foot-4-inch, 222-pound junior missed last season’s high-scoring matchup due to injury, making this the first time Pitt will face Dungey in Babers’ offense.
Dungey has a pair of senior receivers he targets a lot in Steve Ishmael and Ervin Philips. Ishmael, standing at 6-feet-2-inches and 209-pounds, leads the team in receptions (51) and receiving yards (632), and his 2 receiving touchdowns are tied for the team-lead. Ervin Philips, a 2016 honorable mention All-ACC selection, failed to top 100 yards in the first four weeks before catching fire against NC State. Against the Wolfpack, Philips registered an ACC-record 17 receptions for 188 yards, earning ACC Receiver of the Week honors for his efforts. Ishmael and Philips are the most highly targeted duo in the nation, with Ishmael’s 10.2 receptions-per-game leading all FBS receivers and Philips’ 8.8 receptions-per-game ranking third.
In addition to Ishmael and Philips, keep an eye on big play threat Sean Riley. The diminutive 5-foot-8-inch, 155-pounder was one of the top returnmen in the country as a true freshman last season, and his 11.8 yards-per-carry and 18 yards-per-catch show that his big play potential is translating well on offense.
“They are getting matchups,” said Narduzzi on Monday, regarding the Syracuse receivers. “They put smaller guys inside and try to work your safeties, put their bigger guys on your corners. So some of the bigger receivers are out there. Ishmael is out there. So they will put their bigger guys outside and throw some jump balls and they will put their small guys in and try — it’s something to deal with, that’s for sure. It’s interesting stuff and they spread you out.”
When Eric Dungey isn’t the designated runner, he often hands the ball to running back Dontae Strickland. Strickland has 51 carries and 3 touchdowns on the season, but averages a mere 2.7 yard-per-carry. Moe Neal, Strickland’s backup, holds a more impressive 5.1 yards-per-carry, although 71 of his 127 yards came on one play. Neal is also the Orange’s third-leading receiver with 142 yards.
At tight end, 6-foot-3-inch, 237-pound Ravian Pierce contributes when it matters most. His 10 catches for 39 yards reveal that he doesn’t receive the ball often, but having caught 2 of Dungey’s 7 touchdown passes, he plays a significant role once the Orange reach the redzone.
On the offensive line, the Orange return three starters, but also start two redshirt freshman. The group has conceded 12 sacks, while blocking for a team that averages 3.7 yards-per-rush.
Defensively, Syracuse is “a lot better football team than they were a year ago” according to Pat Narduzzi. Seeing that their 357.6 yards allowed per game rank 50th in the FBS, this is a marked improvement over their standing last year when the two teams met (they allowed 488.1 yards-per-game, 119th in the FBS). Despite their overall improvements, the Orange’s defense has registered just 4 sacks on the season though, and their .80 sacks-per-game are tied for 122nd in the FBS.
Syracuse boasts some beef on the interior of the defensive line with nose tackle Kayton Samuels standing at a stout 6-feet, 319 pounds, and defensive tackle Chris Slayton at 6-feet-4-inches, 315 pounds. On the exterior, sophomore end Kendall Coleman returns after starting 11 games as a true freshman, and first-year starter Alton Robinson occupies the opposite end position. Together, the starters on the defensive line have accounted for 1.5 of the team’s 4 sacks.
The Orange’s linebacking corps features three seniors, including Mike linebacker Zaire Franklin and Will linebacker Parris Bennett. Franklin, a 2016 third team All-ACC honoree, has 33 total tackles with 2 for loss. Bennett, a 2016 honorable mention All-ACC selection, has 42 total tackles (team-high), 4.5 tackles-for-loss, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery.
At free safety, the Orange start Jordan Martin, a graduate transfer from Toledo. Martin transferred to Syracuse after spending four years as a Rocket, and his 18 tackles rank fifth on the team. Pairing with Martin is sophomore Evan Foster. Foster is performing well in his first season as a starter, holding 24 tackles, 1 interception and a forced fumble. Martin and Foster play behind a pair of sophomore cornerbacks in Scoop Bradshaw and Christopher Fredrick. Both corners have 3 pass breakups, and Fredrick has one interception.
Below is this week’s statistical breakdown:
|Points Per Game||24.4||31.6||33.0||24.4|
|Yards Gained Rushing||744||969||848||779|
|Yards Lost Rushing||172||119||132||119|
|Average Yards Per Rush||3.1||4.9||3.7||3.6|
|Average Yards Per Game||114.4||170.0||143.2||132.0|
|Average Yards Per Game||244.6||263.4||317.0||225.6|
|Average Yards Per Play||5.1||7.0||5.4||5.1|
|Average Yards Per Game||359.0||433.4||460.2||357.6|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||17-349||11-200||15-382||17-342|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||9-184||7-61||12-62||2-6|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||6-68||4-60||4-62||4-28|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||20.5||18.2||25.5||20.1|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||20.4||8.7||5.2||3.0|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||11.3||15.0||15.5||7.0|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||5-4||8-5||6-5||10-4|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||17-156||18-145||36-303||31-293|
|Average Per Game||31.2||29.0||60.6||58.6|
|PUNTS – YARDS||23-1077||22-914||24-1113||38-1589|
|Net Yards Per Punt||41.6||33.2||43.6||40.2|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||32:43||27:17||29:38||30:22|
|4th Down Percentage||69.2%||75.0%||62.5%||66.7%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||6-44||16-138||4-17||12-80|
On the injury front for Syracuse, defensive ends Kendall Coleman, Josh Black and Jake Pickard are questionable, as is wide receiver Jamal Custis; cornerback Antwan Cordy, defensive back Devon Clarke, offensive lineman Aaron Roberts and center Donnie Foster are out.
For Pitt, the primary updates to their injury report are as follows: cornerback Phillipie Motely is listed as probably, while fullback George Aston is out.
WHERE TO WATCH/LISTEN
Saturday’s matchup will be aired on AT&T Sportsnet Pittsburgh 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.