The good thoughts for Syracuse, they have played well in their small sample size of Friday night home games. That sample size is primarily last year’s beatdown on West Virginia. Getting them out to a 5-2 start before losing five straight, including the season finale versus Pitt. The bad news, they haven’t beaten Pitt since Paul Pasqualoni was still in charge.
The Orange will receive a boost with the return of 2011 All-Big East left tackle Justin Pugh, who’s been out with a Calf injury. Pugh says he has his own motivation heading into Friday’s game.
“It’s my first game back,” says an excited Pugh, “I‘ve never beaten Pitt so I’m a little amped for that, I’m just ready to get out there and play and beat these guys.”
Seven straight years of losses to Pitt. The only team in the Big East, against whom Wannstedt was perfect. Let that sink in for a bit.
Pugh was also coming back from off-season shoulder surgery. Something that had more to do with his absence in the first four games than the calf injury.
With Pugh returning, the Syracuse O-line gets a bit of a makeover.
The Orange featured a new-look right side of the offensive line, with sophomore Sean Hickey moving from left tackle to right tackle to make room for 2011 All-Big East left tackle Justin Pugh and redshirt freshman Rob Trudo playing extensively with the first team at right guard. Trudo and fellow redshirt freshman Ivan Foy have played in a rotation this season with Foy getting the starting nod until now.
Syracuse has been heavily reliant on the pass so far this season. Ryan Nassib has been throwing almost 45 times a game, piling up over 340 yards/game. The rushing, however, has not been nearly so active. They have a total of 583 rushing yards and have the 83rd ranked rushing attack in 1-A. Just Ray Graham and Rushel Shell have more yards than the entire Syracuse team. My guess is that if Pugh is close to full strength, Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone will try to do more with the running game.
The question is, how much do they deviate from their offense to this point. Yes, they are 1-3 — and with a bad loss to Minnesota — but they have been able to score points. Ryan Nassib has been very good. And much like the pros, it seems that the college game has been more about the passing offense.
Through the first month of the season, 25 schools are averaging 300 or more passing yards per game, including Syracuse. That’s a dramatic increase from the previous five seasons when there was an average of only 10.8 teams surpassing that total.
The Orange are 10th (341.8), with quarterback Ryan Nassib first in the Big East and sixth in the nation. Pitt is 26th (299.2), with quarterback Tino Sunseri second and 20th (286).
Scoring is similarly on an upward track, with 20 teams averaging 40 or more points per game. Over the past five seasons, the average is 7.4 teams, with only two hitting that mark in 2009.
Pressed on the subject, Chryst admitted the game has changed.
“If you looked at it offensively and defensively, the film would look different than 10 years ago,” he said. “The spread has had an impact. Defensively, there are probably a lot more pressures (on the quarterback).”
Chryst said Nassib’s numbers have less to do with Syracuse (1-3) trying to catch up late in games and more with the three-year starter’s ability to make plays.
“I imagine they are saying, ‘Who’s our best player?’ It’s a pretty good plan. Put it in his hands, a guy who can make good decisions,” Chryst said. “He’s confident in what he’s doing and knows where he wants to go with the ball. I think he likes those situations (at the end of the game). He has a lot of qualities from afar that you admire, or I do.”
I have to admit, after the previous two years of watching Ryan Nassib play, it is hard to imagine him as one of the best players on Syracuse. Kind of the Cuse version of Sunseri.
The other part of the equation is that the Syracuse running backs don’t appear to be on the level of the Delone Carter and Antwon Bailey. Their receivers, though, are quite good and all three starting WRs are averaging over 10 yards/catch. That’s going to put a lot of pressure on the Pitt corners. Especially redshirt freshman, Lafayette Pitts.
Pitts said he expects the Orange to run a lot of short routes, and then try to catch the Panthers biting on a double-move for a deep pass. To avoid that, Pitts will have to maintain discipline with his eyes, a mental aspect of the game he has been working to improve since training camp.
Defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable employs a virtually exclusive man-to-man scheme, and Pitts, as the field corner, will handle whichever receiver lines up on his side.
“It is [difficult] in certain coverages because when you can see the whole offense progressing to you, you’ve got to stay disciplined to your receiver,” Pitts said. “Your eyes can get stuck in the backfield sometimes.”
Pitts does look to become an excellent corner, but this will be a tough game for him. As an aside, I imagine the present coaches were quite happy that Pitts was redshirted last year.
Like Pitt, Syracuse had a bye week. Like Pitt, they were working on the fundamentals: penalties, turnovers and red-zone offense.
“During the bye week we’ve paid more attention to those things … turnovers, penalties and situations during the course of a game which are really hurting us. Those are the things that we’ve worked on,” Orange coach Doug Marrone said Monday during the weekly Big East coaches teleconference.
SU’s struggles with turnovers, penalties, special teams and red-zone offense cost the Orange in its opening loss to Northwestern and prevented the team from being in its last game at Minnesota.
“We’re getting ready for a team coming in that is very talented, up front and in the running back position — very aggressive and sound in what they do defensively,” Marrone said of the Panthers. “We have a great challenge, but we have to give ourselves an opportunity — and that’s what we’re not doing right now.”
The bye week has also been about getting players healthy. In addition to the aforementioned Pugh, they are looking to get junior WR Adrian Fleming and kick returner Steve Rene. Starting CB, Brandon Reddish, does not appear to be healthy for this game.
On the Syracuse defense, they are focusing on the run. An area of concern as they bookend their own 83rd ranked rushing offense with the 83rd best rushing defense.
Stopping the off-tackle run has been an adventure for the Orange defense this season, which will enter the contest ranked No. 83 in the nation in rushing defense, allowing 176.25 yards per game. Lately, the team has turned more to junior-college transfer Zian Jones (6-foot-4, 309 pounds) to help plug the holes. Jones has joined sophomore Eric Crume in a rotation at tackle behind starters Jay Bromley and Deon Goggins.
“Zian has done an outstanding job,” coach Doug Marrone said. “You talk about someone who loves playing football and is really enjoying himself, and you talk about someone who of all our players has probably changed his body type (the most). He’s gone from about 340 pounds to about 309. The energy level is there, the reps are starting to increase, so we’re very excited about his development in helping us on the inside.”
For Coach Paul Chryst, as we have already come to expect. It is about practicing. Getting reps. Getting better. Progressing.
But, in his usual modest fashion, Chryst said Monday that the team did not spend the bye week celebrating their recent wins. He said his players were working hard and continuing to progress.
“The bye came at a time where it’s an opportunity for us to get better,” Chryst said. “It wasn’t all perfect the last two games.
“I hope we’re getting better and not just trying to ride that wave. Each week, each game is its own opportunity, and you have to rise up for that, not trying to hold on to something.”
That might be the good thing for Chryst coming out of a bye week. Pitt has — to put it mildly — struggled after bye weeks to have any focus. The last seven years, they have been 4-10 coming off the bye (3-9 under Wannstedt, 1-1 with Graham). Chryst, after every game has made each game a separate entity. Detached. It is the next game, it starts over. He doesn’t seem to by into momentum from one game to the next. It is about building, learning and improving each week.
Finally, for the human interest, local high school angle: former Central Catholic players/friends will be facing each other.