THE MATCHUP: PITT (2-3) VS SYRACUSE (4-1)
WHEN: 12:20 P.M. EST
WHERE: HEINZ FIELD, PITTSBURGH, PA
HOW TO WATCH: RAYCOM SPORTS; WTAE (LOCALLY)
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK
For the second year in a row, Pitt will face the Syracuse Orange in its sixth game of the season. Last year, both teams entered the contest fielding 2-3 records, and Syracuse would edge out the Panthers, 27-24. Neither team would go on to reach a bowl game, with Pitt earning five wins and Syracuse earning four. Overall, the teams were in comparable states.
Fast forward to 2018 and this is no longer the case. While Pitt is once again entering its sixth game at 2-3, Syracuse – who suffered their first loss of the season last week to fourth-ranked Clemson – appears to be turning a corner in Dino Babers’ third year as head coach. With victories over Wagner, Western Michigan and Connecticut, the Orange have avoided early season losses to “beatable” opponents. After drubbing Florida State 30-7, they own an upset over one of the ACC’s top programs (although the Seminoles hardly resemble an elite team this year), and they nearly upset Clemson last week before blowing a 10-point fourth quarter lead. Though disappointing for the Orange fans, the loss to Clemson is excusable, and in many ways, rather encouraging.
With optimism surrounding the Syracuse program growing, the Orange will now look to defeat Pitt for the second year in a row and take one more step towards earning their first bowl appearance since 2003.
When Dino Babers arrived at Syracuse, he installed an up-tempo, spread offense similar to that of Oklahoma State, and the effects of his system are showing on the field. Averaging 480.8 total yards-per-game, the Orange rank 26th nationally in that category and 3rd in the ACC. However, unlike last year when their passing attack drove the offense’s success (Syracuse was ranked 15th in the FBS when they played Pitt), it is the run game producing at a higher rate. With a 23rd-ranked rushing attack averaging 234.6 yards-per-game, they compile nearly as many yards on the ground as they do through the air (246.2 yards-per-game). Most importantly, though, is that all of those yards are leading to points; SU’s 44.2 points-per-game is tied for 16th in the FBS.
Returning at quarterback is 6-foot-4-inch, 226-pound senior Eric Dungey. Throughout his three seasons as the Orange’s starting quarterback, Dungey has battled injuries, yet still put forth some impressive performances along the way. As Clemson’s Dabo Swinney said a week ago, “This kid is a baller, man,” and he commandeers the Orange’s run-pass option at a high level. Through the air, Dungey has completed 84-of-132 passes for 1,013 yards, 9 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, and as a runner he has amassed 365 yards and a team-high 6 touchdowns on 64 carries. Last week, Central Florida’s McKenzie Milton extended pass plays and gained yardage with his legs against the Panthers, and Dungey has the potential to do the same.
SU lost a duo of All-ACC receivers in the offseason, Steve Ishmael and Ervin Phillips, but new receivers are stepping up in Babers’ offense. The Orange’s top receiver is Jamal Custis, a physically imposing target on the outside. At 6-feet-5-inches and 213 pounds, the redshirt-senior has 360 yards and 3 touchdowns on 22 receptions.
Complementing the giant Custis are two 5-foot-8-inch slot receivers, Sean Riley and Nykeim Johnson. Riley, a big-play threat who has been one of the top returnmen in the ACC the past two seasons, has 20 receptions for 217 yards and 2 touchdown. Johnson, although listed as Riley’s backup, contributes often with 15 catches for 192 yards and 1 touchdown.
At running back, junior Moe Neal is the primary ball carrier with 367 yards and 2 touchdowns on 77 carries, but Dontae Strickland is allotted his share of touches and has found the endzone 5 times. Also, true-freshman Jarveon Howard has earned a role in the offense by averaging 8.0 yards-per-carry.
Of course, running behind an offensive line that returns four starters makes life easier for Dungey, Neal and company. The only lineman who did not start in 2017, left guard Aaron Roberts, missed the entire season with a knee injury after starting all 12 games in 2016.
Syracuse’s depth chart suggests that they operate out of a base 4-3 defense, but their breakdown of starts-by-player reveals that they begin the game with a three-safety, 4-2-5 look. Their 402.6 total yards allowed-per-game ranks 89th in the FBS, with 239.4 of those yards coming through the air and 163.3 coming on the ground. Syracuse’s yardage totals may not impress, but the team does rank highly in a couple of game-changing categories; they are tied for 8th in the FBS with 8 team interceptions, and they rank 11th in sacks-per-game.
The Orange’s defensive line features a trio of disruptive defensive ends who are getting to the quarterback this season. Junior Kendall Coleman has emerged as one of the top pass rushers in the nation; his 6 sacks place him in a tie for fifth in the FBS. Alton Robinson, another junior, starts opposite of Coleman and has 4 sacks of his own, and rotational sophomore end Jonathan Kingsley adds 2 sacks as a rotational piece.
Meanwhile, on the inside of the line is a pair of 300-pounders, including redshirt-senior Chris Slayton. Capable of squatting 700 pounds, the 6-foot-4-inch, 309-pound redshirt-senior has strength comparable to professional power lifters, yet he can still move well for a 300+ pound lineman.
After losing all three starting linebackers this offseason, Syracuse needed someone to emerge behind the defensive line. Sam linebacker Kielan Whitner, a 6-foot, 215-pound senior, has done just that. Whitner may not be the biggest linebacker, but he can tackle; with 43 total tackles, his 9.0 tackles-per-game rank second in the ACC. He also has 2.0 tackles-for-loss, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble and 1 interception, impacting the game in multiple ways.
In the secondary, Scoop Bradshaw and Christopher Fredrick both return at cornerback for the Orange. At safety, Syracuse features a diverse trio of players who will all be on the field at once. Strong safety Evan Foster tracks down ball carriers, ranking second on the team in tackles with 32. Antwan Cordy, listed as the starting free safety, has missed much of the past two seasons due to injury, but is finally healthy as a redshirt-senior. And although listed behind Cordy on the depth chart, true-freshman Andre Cisco is the player most likely to make Kenny Pickett pay for bad decisions on Saturday. After enrolling early this year, the product of Florida’s IMG Academy has started every game for the Orange this season, and his 4 interceptions lead the FBS.
Four of the last six meetings between Pitt and Syracuse have been decided by three points or fewer. If this is to be the case once again, field goals may play a pivotal role in the game’s outcome. While Pitt’s Adam Kessman is 1-for-2 on the season, Syracuse’s Andre Szmyt is 13-of-14 and leads the nation in field goals per-game. Szmyt may be a redshirt-freshman, but his reliability has been that of an experienced veteran.
|Points Per Game||22.4||32.0||44.2||21.4|
|Yards Gained Rushing||1078||1130||1278||974|
|Yards Lost Rushing||120||126||105||158|
|Average Yards Per Rush||5.1||5.0||5.0||4.4|
|Average Yards Per Game||191.6||200.8||234.6||163.2|
|Average Yards Per Game||151.6||229.8||246.2||239.4|
|Average Yards Per Play||5.5||6.3||6.0||5.8|
|Average Yards Per Game||343.2||430.6||480.8||402.6|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||11-254||4-94||12-238||12-180|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||9-110||10-80||11-217||3- -1|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||3-99||4-67||8-29||2-20|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||23.1||23.5||19.8||15.0|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||12.2||8.0||19.7||-0.3|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||33.3||16.8||3.6||10.0|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||7-4||10-4||4-2||10-4|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||40-379||28-231||34-259||36-255|
|Average Per Game||75.8||46.2||51.8||51.0|
|PUNTS – YARDS||26-992||20-839||23-1058||36-1448|
|NET YARDS PER PUNT||35.1||35.5||43.4||33.6|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||30:50||29:10||29:55||30:05|
|4th Down Percentage||33%||50%||60%||56%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||9-64||10-82||17-114||8-56|
This weekend’s game, which is the Homecoming game for Pitt, kicks off at 12:20pm. It will be the 74th meeting between the two teams, with Pitt leading the all-time series 38-32-3. Fans can watch the game on Raycom Sports (WTAE locally), and can hear it on 93.7 the Fan. As always, Pittsburgh Sports Now and its staff will provide in-game updates and observations via Twitter.