Pitt is coming off a convincing 55-0 win over the Austin Peay Governors. As they face their first conference opponent in Syracuse, who is coming off a 31-6 loss to North Carolina, Pitt’s expectations are higher than ever before. However, just what are they facing as the Orange come to town? What players should Panthers fans know and look for?
Syracuse Dino Babers comes from the Art Briles coaching tree from his time at Baylor. The offense, as such, runs a system known as the veer and shoot. When watching the film, it looks like a Big 12 offense, as it stresses defensive backs and linebackers to cover their receivers. The point of the veer and shoot is to spread the defense out with an abnormally wide split. The offense, for the most part, is exclusively out of shotgun. Babers, in particular, likes to spread the defense out in four-wide or empty sets. With these splits, there are only a few route combinations that Babers can dial-up and that does show the limitations of the scheme as a whole. The spacing of routes can get clunky. What happens out of this scheme is a lot of slants, hitches, and out routes. However, they keep the defense honest by running lots of vertical concepts as well. The Orange will attack the seam and use double moves effectively as well.
The splits are meant to confuse the defense. This is a blown coverage by the Pitt defense from last year. They should be carrying this vertically and squeezing this. However, the Syracuse spacing is a problem here to a degree. Still, attacking a zone scheme with two seams is something that the wild veer and shoot scheme has in its cards. If Tommy Devito had thrown this accurately, it is likely this is a touchdown. Pitt was playing to jump the quick passing game and nearly got burnt all the way.
Here is the quick game that Babers wishes to establish. Again, the splits are odd. Usually, the receivers are not that close to each other, but it does a nice job of creating picks and traffic, hence why the defensive backs are off by a good margin. It is only a small gain on the hitch, but it gives a good view of what the intention of Babers’ scheme really is.
In the running game, Babers likes to use lots of misdirection and get his quarterbacks involved. This can be pre-snap motion into an inverted veer. It can be a fake jet sweep into an inside zone run. All of those things are prevalent in Babers’ scheme. He likes to employ a move tight end at times out of 11 personnel. The screen game comes in handy as an extension of the passing game in his offense as well.
Their defensive scheme is the new 3-3-5 defense. Popularized in college football by San Diego State head coach Rocky Long, the 3-3-5 defense is often used in college football, but not as a team’s base defense. The 3-3-5 has trouble defending runs in-between the hashes, which could be a point of focus for Pitt this game. However, very often, spread offenses struggle with it because of the added athleticism of having a nickel cornerback in there at all times. It is very easy to disguise coverages out of the scheme and mess with the quarterback’s eyes. Sam Howell seemed to run into that problem early before settling in nicely, but with a week of film study on the new defense, Kenny Pickett should be better prepared.
Players to Watch
Safety Andre Cisco
Cisco is the best player on the Syracuse team. Perhaps a future first-round pick, Cisco picked off Sam Howell last week and has 13 interceptions on his career. To say the least, on film and in the box score, Cisco is a ballhawking safety. He also plays with a lot of physicality and will lay the wood. This is a player that is athletic and rangy and plays a great single-high safety when called upon to do so. That is likely where he will be in the NFL, and in college, he is a weapon that the Orange utilizes as a robber over the middle of the field when they disguise their coverages. The leader of a good secondary, Cisco is a dangerous player for Pickett to watch on Saturday.
“He’s kind of like Paris Ford,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “He finds the ball. Got great eyes. He’ll play all over the place. He’ll have a good beat on what we do. We’ll have to change up what we do, try to stay away from him. He’s just a great football player. … He’ll be a player that plays at the next level.”
Quarterback Tommy Devito
Devito is an experienced quarterback that may have nightmares from last year’s game in the Carrier Dome. The Pitt defensive line was all on him. What Devito brings to the table is a quarterback with solid mental processing and good mobility. It’s Devito’s ability to extend the play outside of the structure of a given that play that makes him a little bit of a problem. However, his inconsistent accuracy, only average arm strength, and questionable decision-making make him prone to making turnover worthy plays.
Defensive Back Ifeatu Melifonwu
The Orange have some playmakers in the defensive backfield, and Melifonwu is a great complement to Cisco. A fantastic athlete, Melifonwu is long, fast, smooth, and explosive. The plays he makes on the play and catch are great. Melifonwu has played everywhere from box safety to outside cornerback and is very good in man coverage with his length to disrupt players in press coverage. While he needs to improve as a tackler, Melifonwu is likely an NFL prospect and the Panthers need to keep a close eye on him as well.
Key Matchups to Watch
Pitt Defensive Line vs Syracuse Offensive Line
It is not yet known who will be active for Pitt on the defensive line, but this was the place where Syracuse lost last year. There was simply very little room to run the football effectively, and more importantly, the Panthers were relentless in getting after Devito. If the offensive line can not stop the fearsome depth of the Pitt defensive line, it stands to say that Pitt will control this game and kill any promising drives that the Orange had much like they did last year the Carrier Dome.
Pitt Receivers vs Syracuse Secondary
If the Orange want to win this game, they will need to make a splash play or two. That means guys like Cisco and Melifonwu need to step up as the leaders of the defense and make plays. The 3-3-5 defense could give Pitt some troubles early given the nature of Mark Whipple’s scheme, but if the receivers dust the cornerbacks like they did Austin Peay’s corners last week, Syracuse will not have much of a chance. Jordan Addison, Taysir Mack, Shocky Jacques-Louis, and more will all be the guys to watch in this matchup against a talented secondary.