Preview: Panthers look to snap two-game losing streak against Syracuse


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Pitt football head coach Pat Narduzzi yells on the sidelines during the Backyard Brawl football game against West Virginia Sept. 1.

By Brian Sherry, Staff Writer

To say this year’s Panther football season is disappointing is an understatement. The Panthers’ chances to defend the ACC championship essentially ended Saturday with a 42-24 road loss to North Carolina. With a difficult road ahead, the Panthers may not even make a bowl game appearance. 

But the Panthers can still make something out of this season. Pitt returns home to face off against No. 22 Syracuse in a must-win, rivalry game. A win over Syracuse is easier said than done. 

The Orange shocked the country this season, winning six straight games to start the season. Syracuse nearly upset No. 5 Clemson too, but the Tigers stormed back to win 27-21. The Orange also dropped a game last week to Notre Dame.

Few predicted that Syracuse would be a favorite to beat the Panthers at the beginning of the season. Many projected Syracuse to finish near the bottom of the ACC. Plus, Pitt historically dominates the Orange. The Panthers lead the all-time series 42-31, including four straight victories. Last season, Pitt routed the Orange 31-14. 

Syracuse’s defense is clearly the reason for their strong performance this season. The Orange top the ACC in defense, only allowing 303.1 yards per game. Much of this defensive dominance stems from the Orange’s secondary. Syracuse allows just 164.5 passing yards per game, good for No. 3 in the nation.

Defensive backs sophomore Garrett Williams and sophomore Darian Chestnut lead the stout Orange pass defense. Williams dominated the early part of the 2022 campaign, posting 29 tackles in the first four games. But injuries sidelined Williams against Clemson and limited his role against Notre Dame. It’s unclear if Williams will dress against Pitt, but he will hinder the Panthers’ passing attack if he does. 

Chestnut dominated for the Orange last season. The redshirt sophomore defensive back earned Freshman All-American honors and was the runner-up for ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year. Chestnut has not lived up to expectations in the 2022 campaign, posting only 24 total tackles and one interception. But the Panther offense still needs to keep an eye on Chestnut.

The Orange defensive line isn’t nearly as noteworthy as its secondary. The Syracuse line is average, ranking No. 8 in the ACC in sacks with 19. redshirt sophomore lineman Steven Linton leads the Orange pass rush with 3.5 sacks and 6.0 tackles for a loss. Still, the Orange secondary makes this Syracuse defensive unit elite. 

On top of their controlling defense, the Orange also possess a highly dynamic offense. Syracuse boasts one of the nation’s best running backs in sophomore Sean Tucker. The sophomore halfback is one of the best rushers in the ACC, ranking No. 2 in the conference in rushing yards with 758. 

Of course, the top spot in the conference currently belongs to Panther junior running back Israel Abanikanda with 1086 yards. The battle between Tucker and Abanikanda is one of the top storylines coming into the game. Look for both players to make a statement in the matchup. 

But Syracuse’s most underrated player on offense is undoubtedly junior quarterback Garrett Shrader. The junior signal caller is in the midst of a breakout year, posting 14 touchdown passes and a solid 72.3 passer rating. Shrader began the season with a strong showing against ACC rival Louisville, completing 72% of his passes en route to a 31-7 win over the Cardinals. 

With a strong running back and quarterback, the Panthers need to bring their best to keep the Orange from moving the ball downfield. The Syracuse offense does have a weakness, though — its offensive line. The Orange gave up the fourth most sacks in the ACC this season with 22. The Panther defense needs to put pressure on the weak Orange line if they want to earn a win. 

Prediction: The Orange trounce the Panthers 26-10

At times, the 2022 Panthers look like they are on the verge of greatness. But with every great victory comes a major defeat for the team. Pitt took down West Virginia and went into OT with No. 2 Tennessee, only to lose to Georgia Tech weeks later. Abanikanda then led the Panthers to a beat-down of Virginia Tech, only for Pitt to drop their next two games. 

The Panthers’ struggles aren’t just limited to the field. First-year wide receiver Jaden Bradley recently departed the team and entered the transfer portal in the middle of the season. Injuries, chemistry and on-field play all contribute to the Panthers’ lackluster performance to this point. 

Syracuse is strong on both sides of the ball. But how does Pitt stack up? Not well. Syracuse does everything Pitt does, just better. While Panther senior quarterback Kedon Slovis struggled this season, Shrader shined. The Panther defense is a solid unit, but they don’t compare to Syracuse’s elite secondary. Abankanda is great, but so is Tucker. Overall, Syracuse is a better team than Pitt and it will show on Saturday.

Pitt has a lot to work on moving forward. But it will probably get worse before it gets better. Syracuse is a team on the rise and will get the job done against a historic foe. 

The Panthers and Orange will clash at Acrisure Stadium on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Coverage will air on ACC Network.