Pitt football made the trek north Friday to Syracuse for the 75th all-time meeting with its former Big East and current ACC rivals, the Orange. This year’s installation of Panthers football has developed a flare for the dramatic, to put it lightly.
The same was true inside the Carrier Dome on Friday night, as the Panthers nearly blew a halftime lead for the sixth straight game. But another dominant defensive performance carried them to a win and inched them further up the Coastal division standings.
Powered by a resurgent ground game, the Pittsburgh Panthers (5-2, 2-1 ACC) cruised to a 24-6 halftime lead over the Syracuse Orange (3-4, 0-3 ACC) in their first game following the bye week. While the second half was once again marred by questionable officiating and a halftime lead that was almost entirely surrendered, the Panthers emerged victorious, 27-20.
Junior running back A.J. Davis had the first 100-yard rushing game of his career, picking up 103 yards on 16 carries, good for 6.4 yards per tote.
The defense continued their stout play, even without star redshirt sophomore safety Paris Ford, who sat out the first half because of a targeting penalty against Duke on Saturday, Oct. 5. Syracuse quarterbacks Tommy Devito (redshirt sophomore) and Clayton Welch (redshirt senior) picked on the Panthers’ secondary as coach Pat Narduzzi shuffled his defensive backs around in Ford’s absence. A dominant pass rushing performance and six first-half sacks limited the damage — on two trips inside the Panthers 10- yard line, the Orange only managed two field goals.
The only blemish of the first half was a muffed punt off the hands of senior receiver Maurice Ffrench, who attempted a late fair catch and let the ball bounce off of him and into the arms of a Syracuse defender. That turnover led to the Orange’s first points of the game, a field goal by redshirt sophomore kicker Andre Szmyt.
Pitt was able to respond with a pretty touchdown strike by junior quarterback Kenny Pickett, a deep pass on a tricky double lateral play that allowed senior receiver Aaron Matthews to run free downfield. The score put the Panthers up 10-3 in a lead they would not relinquish.
Syracuse pulled out some trickery of its own, however. Head coach Dino Babers routinely juggled quarterbacks, catching the Panthers off guard with the threat of Welch’s running ability before opening up the playbook and letting him air it out when the Panthers sold out to contain him.
The Panthers had two more scoring drives in the first half, both touchdowns. The first came after a dominant defensive series forced the Orange to punt from their own goal line, giving Pickett a short field to work with. The second came in the two minute drill as Pickett engineered an efficient 10-play, 85-yard drive that bled the remaining time off the clock, capped by a sharp back-shoulder throw and catch for a touchdown.
In the locker room during the break, Pickett gave a fiery speech after seeing his teammates smiling and relaxed, especially in the wake of blown first-half leads in five of Pitt’s six games this season. Despite improvements running the football — and the added jolt of Ford’s return — the Panthers found themselves in for a tense second half.
Narduzzi’s aggressive defensive playcalling, so successful in the first half, came back to haunt him in the second half when he dialed up a safety blitz on third-and-9 that freed sophomore receiver Taj Harris for a 94-yard Syracuse touchdown.
The Orange’s long touchdown targeted junior defensive back Jason Pinnock, who has been nursing a hamstring injury since the first half of the win over UCF on Sept. 21. Pinnock was once again burned on the deep route, which he has had trouble defending since the injury.
Pitt held an 11-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter, but the Orange were threatening. On a third-and-7 from the Panthers’ 25-yard line, redshirt junior Patrick Jones II came up with a sack, one that would loom large as Szmyt missed the ensuing 49-yard field goal attempt. So after a trio of questionable pass interference calls, Pitt’s defense stood tall in the red zone and forced Syracuse to settle for three points.
The Panthers regained possession and slogged through a 12-play, seven-minute long drive to chew away time, capping it with a field goal to stretch the lead to 14 with seven minutes remaining. Syracuse responded with a touchdown drive, but Pitt’s defense made them fight for every yard as they took 15 plays and four minutes to punch it in the end zone.
The Orange elected not to try for an onside kick, and the ground game again came up big with two first downs from Davis. But keeping with the apparent theme of 2019, the Panthers would provide no shortage of drama. A first down carry by first-year running back Vincent Davis with 1:57 left in the game was initially ruled a fumble recovered by Syracuse before replay reversed the call. The two first downs by the former Davis forced Syracuse to burn its remaining timeouts and allowed Pickett to kneel out the clock.
Up next the Panthers return to the friendly confines of Heinz Field for their first home game in almost a month for a noon kickoff with Miami this Saturday.