Two familiar foes riding opposite waves of momentum will collide at Heinz Field on Saturday afternoon in the Pitt football team’s regular season finale.
The Panthers (7-4 overall, 4-3 ACC) will host the Syracuse Orange (4-7 overall, 2-5 ACC) on Senior Day at 12:30 p.m. looking to cap their regular season with a three-game winning streak. Syracuse, meanwhile, has stumbled into a three-game slide while losing each game by more than two touchdowns.
Here are three things to watch for in the 72nd matchup between the two teams:
Of Pitt’s four losses on the season, two have come against head coaches in their first year with a team — Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente and Miami’s Mark Richt. Including the Panthers’ 45-31 win over Virginia and Bronco Mendenhall, Pitt is 1-2 against teams with new head coaches.
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi, in his second year with the team, will duel with his fourth opposing coach making his debut with a new team in Dino Babers.
After spending two years each as head coach at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green, Babers took the job at Syracuse before the season and got the Orange off to a 4-4 start. He received national attention for his stirring postgame speech after the team’s 31-17 upset over then-No. 17 Virginia Tech Oct. 15.
Count Narduzzi among those who felt inspired watching Babers’ speech.
“He’s a great motivator. I’m a big fan of the post game rah-rah they had after the Virginia Tech win,” Narduzzi said at his Tuesday media teleconference. “I think most coaches would watch that, and I’d want to go play for him. He’s an emotional guy and I really respect that.”
Since the Virginia Tech win, Syracuse is only 1-3 and in danger of ending the season on a four-game losing streak. It’s certainly not what Babers hoped for in his debut season, but he does already have an upset win as a 20-plus point underdog on his resume.
If the Orange’s offense returns to early season form, he’ll have a chance to add another one on Saturday against the Panthers.
Change of pace
The Syracuse offense has struggled mightily during its three-game losing streak, putting up only 34 points total in the three losses to Clemson, North Carolina State and Florida State. Still, defending the Orange will be no easy task for Pitt’s defense Saturday.
Syracuse plays with one of the quickest tempos in the league, a breakneck pace that has helped them to an average of 420.2 yards per game. The Orange especially like to throw the ball, averaging 310.5 yards per game — good for 13th in the nation.
Narduzzi knows defending Syracuse will present an entirely different challenge than the Duke Blue Devils gave his team last week. He said he prepared his defense to expect the Orange to snap the ball anywhere between seven seconds and 19 seconds left on the play clock.
“They have got an explosive offense. The proof is there. They are going to try to tempo,” Narduzzi said. “It will be a big test for our guys to not only stay fresh, stay locked in, get the call and execute. There’s a lot of things that can happen in seven seconds and they have taken advantage of people.”
Going out strong
Pitt will honor the 19 seniors on their roster who will make their final run out of the Heinz Field tunnel on Saturday afternoon. The number of players making their final appearance as Panthers will be 20 if redshirt junior running back James Conner decides to turn pro after the season.
They have a chance to go out on a high note with their second straight eight-win season — including a pair of wins over teams ranked in the top-10 of the current Associated Press poll, Clemson and Penn State.
But first, the team will have to take care of business against a Syracuse team that always seems to play Pitt close. The Panthers have won 12 out of the last 14 meetings, but three of the last four have been decided by three points or less.
“It’s been one of those rivalries like a West Virginia, Penn State type deal, that always comes down to the wire,” Narduzzi said. “We expect the same thing this weekend.”
With Pitt rounding into form and playing its best football of the season the last two weeks, the team will need to build off that momentum to avoid a season-ending letdown against the Orange.
PREDICTION: Syracuse’s high-powered offense has slowed down lately, but Pitt’s pass defense could provide just the cure the Orange are looking for. The Panthers rank next-to-last out of 128 FBS teams with 334.3 passing yards allowed per game. Expect Syracuse to take advantage by going deep early and often, creating another high-scoring affair where one final touchdown run from Conner will prove to be the difference.
Pitt 41, Syracuse 34