This week Pitt heads to the Carrier Dome for a no questions asked, must-win game. Pitt cannot rely upon a win over Miami next Friday to get to bowl eligibility. While Miami isn’t a top 10 team like they were a few weeks ago, they’re still a better team than Pitt across the board. Syracuse, however, is a flawed team still in transition after Doug Marrone left to coach the Buffalo Bills. The ACC set the ARCHRIVAL ORANGE up as Pitt’s cross-division rival, meaning the two teams will play annually even though they’re in different ACC divisions.
A few quick stats on Syracuse. Their offense is rather bad. They’re 99th in points per game (22.4) and 107th in passing (174.9 yards per game). Most offensive production comes on the ground, where they’re averaging 196.7 ypg. Their defense is statistically comparable to Pitt. Both teams allow around 26 points per game. The ARCHRIVAL ORANGE are a bit better in run defense but not quite as good against the pass. Overall, the numbers are quite close.
There is one area Syracuse jumps off of the charts: sacks. They’re tied for 9th in the nation with three sacks per game. This is obviously a big worry given Pitt’s OL struggles and Savage’s inability to get rid of the ball quickly. Thankfully the pass rush doesn’t turn into a ton of turnovers; the ARCHRIVAL ORANGE are forcing fewer than two turnovers per game and most of those are interceptions (13).
The ARCHRIVAL ORANGE are worse offensively than their stats would lead you to believe, which says a lot. It starts with a dreadful passing game. Sophomore Terrel Hunt is the man behind center and after an insanely good start (33/43 468 yards 7 TDs) he has dropped off the face of the Earth the past six games. Since their victory over Tulane, Hunt has gone 68/130 (52%) for 553 yards (4.2 yards per attempt) 0 TDs and 7 interceptions. That’s 92 yards per game.
Hunt’s only way to move the ball is with his feet. Including sacks, he has had 232 yards and two touchdowns on the ground during that same stretch of six games. The one dimensional aspect of Syracuse’s offense will make life a lot easier.
The downside to that one dimensional aspect is that the ARCHRIVAL ORANGE are pretty good on the ground. Jerome Smith and Prince Tyson-Gulley are a solid 1-2 punch. They’ve combined for 1,146 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. Smith was on a very good run until he hit a brick wall against FSU (5 carries, 1 yard), but I won’t judge him harshly for that. In their two biggest wins of the season (NC State and Maryland), Smith was great. In those games he had 258 yards and 3 TDs.
The key to stopping Cuse’s offense will be containing Hunt and Smith on the ground. Tyson-Gulley is injured and his status for the game is up in the air. A lot of Hunt’s passes will be bubble screens. The ARCHVRIVAL ORANGE will try to pound the ball with Smith and Tyson-Gulley then pass off of that. When Syracuse tries to pass the ball several times in a row, the results aren’t pretty. They’ll try a trick play or two as well. Hunt is not very accurate deep, so the safeties can play up and gamble that Hunt will miss if someone is open over the top.
Plain and simple, stop Cuse on the ground and I don’t see how this offense will do anything. They’ve topped 20 points ONCE in the past six games and that was due to 362 rushing yards. If the defense can avoid huge mistakes and stop the rushing attack, I doubt Cuse will score 20.
On defense, Syracuse’s 4-3 has been a lot more impressive. However, they have two key injuries in the secondary, which will cause a lot of issues. The ARCHRIVAL ORANGE will be missing two of their top four CBs, Keon Lyn and Julian Whighman. Syracuse’s secondary is still chasing Devin Street from last season, where he torched them for 10 catches and 130 yards.
The main man to fear is DT Jay Bromley. Bromley’s has 9 sacks on the season, only one behind Aaron Donald. A DT that can penetrate is the best way to stop any offense (as anyone who has watched Aaron Donald nearly win games on his own can attest) and Bromley is obviously one of the best. After Bromley, it’s MLB Marquis Spruill and Robert Walsh with 3.5 and 3.0 sacks respectively. LB Dyshawn Davis has a sack in back to back games as well. Syracuse doesn’t have one guy who steps up when Bromley can’t get there, they have a variety of players, which is bad news for Tom Savage because the pressure will come from all angles.
The player to fear in the secondary (thanks to injuries) becomes safety Durell Eskridge and his four interceptions, two of which have come the past two weeks. His interception against Maryland was a huge play that halted Maryland on one of their better offensive drives of the day.
Syracuse’s defense will rely on pressure and turnovers. If the ARCHRIVAL ORANGE are going to win this game, the defense has to keep Pitt out of the end zone and force turnovers. If Pitt’s offense keeps the ball and scores a few touchdowns, Cuse has a very small chance of winning. They won’t be able to keep up in a shootout.
The key will be to get good yards on first and second down to avoid third and long scenarios, which Pitt has not been too great at. Take advantage of Cuse’s depleted secondary on quick passes like bubble screens and slants. Don’t be afraid to run the ball even if it’s going nowhere. When you’re up against a struggling offense, play the field position game. 3rd and 12 on your own 40? Don’t try a deep pass and open up the chance for a sack. Play small ball, keep Savage upright, and don’t get risky. Even Cuse fans admit they’re going to have to win this one ugly with turnovers, sacks, and the running game.
I’m hoping I’m right and the ineptitude of Syracuse’s offense along with a conservative game plan is good enough. I think ARCHRIVAL ORANGE QB Terrel Hunt makes a mistake or two that prove to be critical and the offense avoids huge mistakes. Pitt wins 24-13 and avenges last year’s loss to the ARCHRIVAL ORANGE.