Pitt set to play Syracuse with bowl berth on line


With the end of the season near, the goal is clear for the Pitt football team.

Mired in its longest losing streak since 2007, a trip to the ACC conference game is mathematically no longer possible for Pitt (4-6, 2-4 ACC), following last week’s loss to UNC. Instead, there’s a familiar number — six — signifying bowl eligibility and, also, in a personal sense, the team’s regular season win total the last two years, in reach.

“But you gotta win five first,” sophomore running back James Conner said.

Syracuse, Pitt’s opponent on Saturday at Heinz Field, already knows it can’t make a bowl game.

It’s known as much since a Nov. 8 loss to Duke, which made it impossible for the Orange (3-7, 1-5 ACC) to finish the season having won at least half of its games — a requirement for postseason eligibility.

But just because that’s true doesn’t mean that the players are approaching Saturday’s visit unmotivated, according to Syracuse freshman quarterback A.J. Long.

“If we can spoil somebody’s season, then great, let’s do it,” Long said.

The last two meetings between the former Big East schools have been low-scoring and close. Pitt clinched its bowl eligibility with a 17-16 victory last year, while Syracuse won 14-13 the season before.

Given this recent history, Pitt head coach Paul Chryst has a sense of what the keys to success for his team will be, citing Pitt’s offensive line and blockers against Syracuse’s defensive line.

Pitt managed just 21 team rushing yards versus the Orange last year and 27 in 2012.

The visitors’ ability to contain Conner — averaging 156 run yards a game — will be key for keeping this year’s contest close. They enter this week with the fifth-best rushing defense in the conference, holding opponents to 127 yards on average, and have only allowed six rushing touchdowns all season.

Other than stopping the run, the team has done fairly well defensively, ranking eighth in scoring defense and sixth in total defense in the conference.

Offensively, the Orange don’t do much well. They rank second to last in total offense and touchdowns scored. Conner alone has scored more than the entire Orange team. Redshirt senior running back Prince-Tyson Gulley averages five yards a carry and 58 yards a game but hasn’t reached the end zone. Receiver Jarrod West averages 66 yards a contest but also hasn’t scored a touchdown.

Some of these attacking struggles might correlate with the team’s inconsistency at quarterback. Redshirt junior Terrel Hunt started the season before fracturing a fibula in early October. He has not played since the injury.

Long has played in four games since then, throwing for 727 yards and four touchdowns.

However, he didn’t play against Duke. Austin Wilson and Mitch Kimble split those duties, throwing a combined 105 yards and no scores. The starting position appeared open.

Speaking Wednesday on the weekly ACC coaches teleconference, head coach Scott Shafer didn’t reveal who will begin this weekend’s game.

“It’s a secret, I couldn’t tell you. If I did tell you I’d have to kill you, and I wouldn’t want to do that,” Shafer said.

With the implications of the game against Syracuse known, Pitt quarterback Chad Voytik says, to players, there’s no need to address what’s at stake.

“We all know what we have in front of us, so you really shouldn’t have to say anything,” Voytik said. “And I know that might not sound like the right thing to say from a leadership role, but there’s just not much you need to say in this situation. You know what you have to do.”

Redshirt senior right guard Matt Rotheram, who, along with 10 other seniors, will play his last home game in a Pitt uniform this weekend, hasn’t found it hard to find motivation.

“Look ahead to the next week. Try to get these wins,” Rotheram said. “You keep fighting through and try to earn ourselves a chance to play one more game.”

The last time Pitt failed to make the postseason was 2007.

Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m.