Preview: Panthers to squash Orange

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Staff writer Tyler Mathes predicts Pitt will win this Saturday vs. Syracuse.

By Tyler Mathes, Staff Writer

Coming off of a thunderous 55-0 win over Austin Peay to open the season, the Pitt Panthers (1-0, 0-0 ACC) host the Syracuse Orange (0-1, 0-1 ACC) tomorrow at 12:00 p.m. at Heinz Field. 

I picked Pitt to win 24-10 last week because of last year’s offensive struggles, scoring more than 24 points in regulation only five times out of 13 games last year. Pitt also has a knack for making games against their FCS opponents close since head coach Pat Narduzzi’s arrival, like their 2017 overtime thriller against Youngstown State.

The Panthers proved me dead wrong, and I won’t make that mistake again. Syracuse is a far better team than Austin Peay on paper, but UNC dispatched them 31-6 last weekend, showing the weakness of their offensive line. The Tar Heels defense racked up seven sacks, never allowing redshirt junior quarterback Tommy DeVito comfort in the pocket. 

Strong defensive play kept the game close through three quarters. Without Tar Heel junior running back Javonte Williams’ three fourth-quarter rushing touchdowns, the scoreboard tells a different story. UNC sophomore quarterback Sam Howell threw for almost 300 yards on the day with one touchdown and two interceptions. 

The stats don’t portray the whole picture, however, as Howell’s touchdown came on the game’s opening drive. The Orange defense surrendered 463 total yards (303 passing, 160 rushing), but did a good job keeping the Tar Heels out of the endzone through the first 45 minutes of play. 

Junior wide receiver Taj Harris is DeVito’s main target on the Syracuse offense. Harris tallied 37 receptions for 559 yards and two touchdowns last season, kicking off his 2020 campaign with five catches for 64 yards. The Orange offense only mustered up 134 yards through the air, and 68 on the ground on Saturday. 

DeVito likes to keep defenses honest by not only throwing the ball, but being an effective runner as well, while Harris will be the focal point of the Pitt secondary’s strategy tomorrow. If Harris and DeVito get going, they are a dangerous duo. 

Last season against the Orange, Pitt’s defense tallied nine sacks, exposing the weaknesses of the Syracuse offensive line. Although the Syracuse quarterbacks combined for 277 yards and two touchdowns, they could only manage 51 yards in their ground game. 

Pitt’s defensive line ranks number one amongst the Power 5 conferences after Week 1 according to Pro Football Focus, even without redshirt senior defensive end Rashad Weaver and redshirt senior defensive tackle Keyshon Camp

 “It’s an amazing advantage to have,” Panthers redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Devin Danielson said, “it just allows us to rotate. No one’s ever tired on the D-Line, there’s always someone fresh in there.”

More offensive balance for the Panthers this year will be a scary sight for the Orange defense Saturday afternoon. Pitt threw for 232 yards and rushed for 145 more in last year’s matchup, with a balanced attack helping the Panthers jump out to a first quarter lead and never looking back. 

“I think everyone is a lot more comfortable,” Pitt running backs/special teams coach Andre Powell said. “…with more maturity at the line and more maturity at my position, I think we can be more balanced and do more things now.”

Senior quarterback Kenny Pickett only needed 20 passes against Austin Peay to rack up 277 yards and a touchdown, and will be well-rested for Saturday’s matchup after sitting for the second half of the season opener. Pitt hopes to have both redshirt senior wide receiver Taysir Mack and redshirt senior transfer tight end Lucas Krull in action against ‘Cuse after they each missed the opening day game against the Governors. Mack finished second on the team last season in receptions with 63, adding 736 yards and three touchdowns. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the strengths that ‘Cuse brings. Perhaps their greatest advantage coming into gameday is the caliber of their opponent last week, whereas Pitt played an FCS opponent with only three games on their schedule this fall. Narduzzi complimented the Orange for their Week 1 fight. 

“Obviously Syracuse had a top-25 team they played. We didn’t have a top-25 team,” Narduzzi said. “I think to their advantage they’ve been in a war already. They were in a war for three quarters. They’re probably better prepared for Saturday than we are at noon.” 

 Preseason AP All-American safety Andre Cisco will present a much tougher test than the Austin Peay secondary. Cisco will look to bait Pickett into bad throws as one of the top coverage safeties in the ACC. Narduzzi likened him to Pitt’s own preseason All-American safety.

 “He’s kind of like Paris Ford. He finds the ball,” Narduzzi said, “got great eyes. He’ll play all over the place. He’ll have a good beat on what we do.”

Prediction:

The Panthers put up 55 points last week, despite playing mostly backups the entire second half. With Mack and Krull hoping to play tomorrow, Syracuse could be in for a long day through the air. The bigger problem for the Orange will be Pitt’s five running backs who are all capable of making big plays in the open field. A mix of star offensive talent hitting the field for the first time and a deep running back corps will make this an easy game for Pitt, who haven’t lost to the Orange at Heinz Field in their last eight encounters.

After pitching a shutout against the Governors one week ago, I expect the Panthers defense to follow up with at least seven sacks to complement another strong performance from the offense. Syracuse will have trouble cracking double digits on the scoreboard this week, while Pitt continues to prove their preseason rank of eighth in the ACC as a horrific mistake.

 Pitt: 34, Syracuse: 7

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