Football: Seeking first Big East win, Panthers set to face Syracuse

Nate Barnes | October 4, 2012    

When the Pitt football team faces Syracuse Friday evening, it won’t be their final meeting,…

Senior wide receiver Cam Saddler (5) and the Panthers will hope to stretch their winning streak to three games against Syracuse on Friday night.

Bobby Mizia, Senior Staff Photographer

When the Pitt football team faces Syracuse Friday evening, it won’t be their final meeting, but it will mark the last time the teams will square off as members of the Big East.

Coming off a bye week, the Panthers (2-2, 0-1 Big East) travel to the Carrier Dome to play the Orange (1-3, 0-0 Big East) at 7 p.m. today on ESPN in a crucial final Big East matchup between the two schools before they enter the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.

Pitt brings a two-game winning streak into the contest. After dropping its first two games of the year to Youngstown State and Cincinnati in miserable fashion, first-year head coach Paul Chryst’s team found itself in dominating victories over Virginia Tech and Gardner-Webb.

Despite how impressive the Panthers were in those wins, Chryst recognizes that his team can still improve.

“The bye came at a time where you say, ‘All right, it’s an opportunity to get better.’ It wasn’t all perfect the last two games, so I hope we’re getting better and not just trying to ride that wave [of momentum],” Chryst said.

Against Syracuse, Chryst knows the Panthers will not only need to put points on the board, but they must also focus on limiting the effectiveness of Syracuse’s vaunted passing game, led by senior quarterback Ryan Nassib.

The Orange lead the Big East in total offense with 487.5 yards per game. Syracuse’s early season offensive success can be primarily attributed to Nassib, who leads all Big East quarterbacks with 341.8 passing yards per game and 10 touchdowns.

“He shows pretty good anticipation. He’s confident in what he’s doing and where he wants to go with the ball,” Chryst said of Nassib. “He shows toughness to me, and even in the end-of-the-game situations, there is some confidence.”

While Syracuse leads the conference in yards per game, the Panthers are not far behind after the combined 90 points and 1,163 yards Pitt’s offense tallied in its last two contests.

Based on recent performances, Pitt can boast a quality quarterback of its own in redshirt senior passer Tino Sunseri. Sunseri, who leads the conference with a 166.8 quarterback rating, has also thrown for 1,144 yards and eight touchdowns.

After Sunseri’s impressive 27-for-34, 344-yard and three-touchdown outing against Gardner-Webb in Pitt’s most recent game, senior wide receiver Cam Saddler said Sunseri’s level of confidence and concentration has never been higher.

“Tino might have more confidence than me, and that’s hard to do,” Saddler said. “He’s ready to go every week. Even when we were in our team meeting before we came to the stadium, we’re small talking and whatnot, and Tino just goes, ‘Hey, let’s lock in.’”

Saddler also added that Sunseri’s leadership has been invaluable to the Panthers this season.

“That’s what we need from him — to be our leader,” the wide receiver said. “He looks so confident. He’s confident in the huddle. He’s making sure guys are doing the right thing. That’s what we need out of our quarterback.”

Saddler’s fellow receivers Devin Street and Mike Shanahan have complemented Sunseri in their own performances. In the two wins over Virginia Tech and Gardner-Webb, Shanahan topped 100 yards receiving — something he had never previously accomplished in his Pitt career — and he ranks second in the Big East with 368 receiving yards.

With the Panthers’ offense finding its rhythm, Pitt will need to take advantage of a Syracuse defense that entered the year expected to be one of the conference’s worst units. So far, the Orange defense has done little to dispel that notion, currently allowing 29 points per game — the most among all Big East teams.

But Chryst knows the Orange will score, too, and this game will not be as easy as the Orange’s 1-3 record might indicate.

“Looking at their record — a lot of us want different records — but they’re a good football team,” he said. “Our guys know about them, and I think they are well coached and have good players. We’ve got to play well Friday night.”

Meanwhile, with the vital conference game airing on national television, Syracuse’s players want to show the country that the Orange’s slow start was an aberration.

“Friday night games are really nice because the world is watching,” Orange junior safety Jeremi Wilkes said. “That’s why I like the Friday night games, because the world gets to watch and your family at home gets to watch. It’s definitely a great time.”

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