Football: Pitt running out of time for bowl eligibility

Football: Pitt running out of time for bowl eligibility

By Nate Barnes / Sports Editor

Pitt football has only two chances remaining on its schedule to become bowl-eligible at six wins. The matchup Saturday in the Carrier Dome at Syracuse may be the best chance the Panthers have left to earn a bowl bid.

Pitt (5-5, 2-4 ACC) heads to upstate New York after a loss to North Carolina at Heinz Field, in which the Panthers came back from a 24-point deficit to ultimately lose on a punt returned for a touchdown.

“We all know that you earn the right at another game by winning,” Pitt head coach Paul Chryst said. “You need six, and we’re not at six.”

Syracuse (5-5, 3-3 ACC), also in its first year as an ACC member, also seeks bowl eligibility after the Orange received a 59-3 beatdown from No. 2 Florida State last week.

“It’s a big game for both us and Syracuse,” Chryst said. “We’re both 5-5.”

After Saturday, the Panthers’ last game comes against Miami, who just recently fell out of the top-25 rankings, so picking up a win against the Orange is paramount.

For Pitt to do so and become bowl-eligible, the Panthers need to limit the effectiveness of a Syracuse rushing attack that racks up nearly 200 yards per game. Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley lead the Orange, and the running backs owns longest runs of 66 and 67 yards, respectively, as a testament to their game-breaking ability.

Smith leads Syracuse with 149 carries for 706 yards and 10 touchdowns. Gulley has rushed for 440 yards on 79 attempts and has scored four times, as has Terrel Hunt.

To limit Syracuse’s talented backfield, the Panthers must be strong up the middle. That starts with senior middle linebacker Shane Gordon, who made his first career start at Syracuse in 2010.

While Gordon missed a few games because of an injury, his leadership has anchored a defense that has shown much improvement since it allowed Duke to score 55 points in the third game of the season.

“Coach is just letting us play,” Gordon said. “If there’s something that doesn’t look right, he’ll just throw it out. We’ll run what we know and just play off of that.”

On the back end of the defense, senior corner K’Waun Williams is also trying to make the most of his final games as a Panther.

“I’m trying to ball out,” Williams said. “Give it everything I got, don’t sell myself short and put it all down on the line.”

One aspect of the game Saturday that may benefit the Panthers is the familiarity Pitt already has with Syracuse, in contrast to the number of new opponents played in the conference this season.

“I think for some of the guys it will certainly help,” Chryst said. “For some of our juniors and seniors and guys that have been up there before, it will be helpful.”

With the experience players such as Gordon and Williams have from their tenures at Pitt, Chryst hopes they can shed light on what to expect from the Orange.

“We want our older players to talk to the younger guys and tell them what kind of game this is going to be,” Chryst said. “We expect it to be physical.”

That physicality was shown last season when the teams combined for just 27 points in a 14-13 Syracuse win.

Pitt fell behind, 14-0, early in that game, and a comeback attempt fell short when Tino Sunseri was sacked multiple times and flagged for intentional grounding on a drive that could’ve resulted in a go-ahead score.

Many remember that game when J.P. Holtz collided helmet-to-helmet with current Steeler Shamarko Thomas, a collision that introduced Pitt fans to the raw power of Holtz and left Thomas writhing in pain on the turf.

Regardless of the pain levied by Holtz on would-be tacklers, players like Gordon and Williams want revenge for that loss. More importantly, they don’t want their Pitt careers to end the day after Thanksgiving.

“I would hate to go out finishing without a bowl,” Gordon said. “We owe Syracuse one from last year, so it’d be good to win.”