Panthers defense stout, knock off No. 20 Syracuse 19-9


Nate Yonamine | Staff Photographer

Senior wide receiver Jared Wayne (5) catches the ball during Pitt football’s game against Syracuse Saturday night.

By Brian Sherry, Staff Writer

For most teams, losing a star player right before a match-up with a top 20 opponent is a complete gamechanger. But not for Pitt.

The Panthers (5-4,2-3 ACC) took down No. 20 Syracuse (6-3, 3-2 ACC) 19-9 without ACC rushing leader junior Israel Abanikanda. Pitt’s running back unit filled in the gaps left by Abanikanda’s absence, rushing for a combined 161 yards and two touchdowns. Senior running back C’Bo Flemister credits his unit’s next man up mentality for the performance. 

“We really feel like we’re [running back University],” Flemister said. “There’s no drop off, for whoever’s in the game.” 

The win was the Panther’s first in nearly a month, as Pitt dropped back-to-back games to Louisville and North Carolina. Senior quarterback Kedon Slovis was thrilled by his team’s ability to bounce back following the rough month of October. 

“Anytime you get a win is great,” Slovis said. “But again, after back-to-back losses, frustration happens. But winning cures all. Definitely a huge win for us.”

Pitt played sloppily at times, giving up two turnovers on offense and giving Syracyse 73 yards from penalties. Special teams errors, dropped passes and fumbles all dragged the offense down. Still, the Panthers made up for it on defense, consistently halting the Orange in clutch scoring opportunities. Head coach Pat Narduzzi praised his defense’s performance, especially the defensive line. 

“I think they played angry,” Narduzzi said. “They showed up today. Played a little angry, the performance a week ago was not who we are. But they were ready to go today.”

Both teams were missing key players in the game. Syracuse junior quarterback Garrett Shrader exited the game last week against Notre Dame and has not played since. 

Pitt’s defense wasted little time in putting pressure on first year Orange quarterback Carlos Del Rio-Wilson. Sophomore linebacker Solomon DeShields sacked Del Rio-Wilson early, forcing a three-and-out on the Orange’s first drive. Senior linebacker SirVocea Dennis was impressed by the defense’s performance. 

“We had a great time out there on the field,” Dennis said. “A lot of guys got a chance to touch the quarterback, a lot of guys got the chance to basically have a party in the backfield. We just have fun out there and that’s what we hope to do everytime we go out there as a defense.”

But the Orange defense returned the favor on the Panthers’ first drive. Following a methodical drive down the field, the Syracuse pass rush forced Slovis into making a sloppy pass, allowing sophomore safety Ja’had Carter to make an interception in the endzone. 

Syracuse slowed the tempo following the pick, relying on short passes and rushes. They eventually moved into the redzone, but couldn’t capitalize. Pitt halted the Orange within yards of the endzone, forcing Syracuse to settle for a field goal and a 3-0 lead. 

Pitt fared better than the Orange in the red zone on the following drive. Slovis quickly rebounded from the interception, connecting with senior wide receiver  Jared Wayne for a 24 yard gain, putting the Panthers in scoring position. Sophomore running back Rodney Hammond Jr. finished the drive with a six yard touchdown rush, giving Pitt a 7-3 lead.  

Both offenses fell flat following the back-to-back scoring drives. A crucial drop from Wanye and a pass short of the sticks to sophomore tight end Gavin Bartholomew halted an otherwise promising drive for the Panthers. The Orange managed to open up the passing attack, as Del Rio-Wilson connected with sophomore wide receiver Damien Alford for a 31 yard gain. But the Orange were once again forced to settle for a field goal, cutting the Panther lead to one. 

Wanye caught fire in the waning minutes of the half, hauling in three tricky passes for a combined 40 yards. The Panthers quickly worked the ball downfield before the end of the half, allowing sophomore kicker Ben Sauls to hit a 43 yard field goal before the whistle. Pitt headed into the locker room holding a 10-6 lead. 

Neither team could make any progress in their opening drive of the second half. The Panthers unsuccessfully attempted a trick play deep within their own territory, as Wanye took a shot across the field to Hammond. But Syracuse junior cornerback Isaiah Johnson picked off the pass, ending a promising drive for the Panthers. Syracuse failed to capitalize on the turnover. 

Wanye made up for the interception on the following drive for the Panthers by hauling in a 23 yard pass, putting the Panthers at the one yard line. Flemister finished the job for the Panthers, flipping into the endzone for a one yard touchdown and increasing the Panther lead to 17-6. 

With just one quarter remaining, the Orange needed to find ways to score. A sloppy 2 yard Panther punt gave Syracuse excellent field possession at the Pitt 27 yard line. Still, they came up short of a first down and missed the subsequent field goal. 

Del Rio-Wilson later connected on a 45 yard pass to junior wide receiver D’Marcus Adams, putting the Orange deep in Panther territory. But the Panthers shut down Syracuse, forcing two incomplete passes and sacking Del Rio-Wilson to end the drive. This time, Syracuse hit the field goal, limiting the Panther lead to eight. 

Syracuse had one chance to tie the game with just over 90 seconds remaining on the clock, but Pitt’s special teams pinned them on their own goal line. Redshirt senior defensive lineman Deslin Alexandre rushed Del Rio-Wilson, earning the sack and the safety and ultimately sealing the win. Alexandre believes the entire team showed up on the safety. 

“You can’t do that by yourself,” Alexandre said.”It was a whole team defensive thing- everybody doing their job.”

Pitt kneeled out the clock, securing the 19-9 win. The Panthers will look to follow up the win next week on the road against Virginia. Kickoff is slated for noon and coverage will air on the ACC network.