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Five things to watch: Pitt at Syracuse

Jerry DiPaola
| Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, 7:39 p.m.
Pitt's Maurice Ffrench scores past Syracuse's Corey Winfield in the third quarter Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Maurice Ffrench scores past Syracuse's Corey Winfield in the third quarter Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, at Heinz Field.
Pitt's Quadree Henderson scoots into the end zone for a touchdown against Syracuse in the third quarter Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Quadree Henderson scoots into the end zone for a touchdown against Syracuse in the third quarter Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, at Heinz Field.
Pitt's Quadree Henderson runs for a third-quarter touchdown against Syracuse on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Quadree Henderson runs for a third-quarter touchdown against Syracuse on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, at Heinz Field.
Pitt's Dennis Briggs pulls in a interception against  Rice in the fourth quarter Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Dennis Briggs pulls in a interception against Rice in the fourth quarter Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017 at Heinz Field.

With the exception of Penn State and West Virginia, Pitt has played Syracuse more times (72) than any other team, winning 38, losing 31 and settling for three ties.

The series, which began in 1916, has been contested in Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium, Pitt Stadium and Archbold Stadium in Syracuse.

But it's the Carrier Dome, the site of Saturday's game, where the series has taken on the most drama recently. The past three games there were decided by one, one and three points, and Pitt won two of them.

Pitt hasn't played a close game against an FBS team this year after participating in 14 single-digit decisions (7-7) under coach Pat Narduzzi the past two seasons. It could be time for another.

Meanwhile, here are storylines for Saturday:

Pitt must irritate the quarterback

There has been talk Syracuse's quick-release passing game makes sacking the quarterback difficult. No doubt, but Middle Tennessee did it five times in a 30-23 victory at Syracuse.

Scott Shafer, the former Syracuse head coach, is Middle Tennessee's defensive coordinator, and he and Narduzzi are longtime pals. Narduzzi said the two did not speak this week, but you wonder why not.

Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey already has recorded 1,714 yards of total offense, but he falls down like anyone else if met with sufficient force. The victory cigar Shafer lit after beating Syracuse proves it.

With only six sacks in five games, the Panthers must, at least, disrupt Dungey's timing, or he'll find enough holes in Pitt's defense to win the game.

Is there a bull's-eye on Pitt's safeties?

Pitt fans looking for hope point to the development of free safeties Damar Hamlin and Bricen Garner and strong safety Jordan Whitehead's return to the lineup.

None of those three played in the 76-61 Pitt victory against Syracuse last season. Cornerback Avonte Maddox missed the game, too. Not surprisingly, backup Orange quarterback Zach Mahoney threw for 440 yards.

It's reasonable to expect improved play in Pitt's secondary, but Syracuse coach Dino Babers will test Hamlin and Garner. If they pass, Pitt can win.

Finally, a running game?

Pitt produced a 1,000-yard rusher in four of the past five seasons. But there are no guarantees this year.

Qadree Ollison, leading the team with 221 yards in five games, must average 111 over the final seven to reach four digits.

Narduzzi is getting impatient with the lack of a running game, and it's to the point he doesn't care if it's poor blocking or backs taking wrong lanes or both. Someone's going to pay by losing playing time.

Narduzzi keeps praising freshman A.J. Davis. It might be time to let him earn that praise in a game.

Can Max keep his job?

Max Browne played exceptionally well against Rice, but the only problem was the weak opponent. The doubters are not satisfied.

It's instructive to know Browne completed 79 percent of his passes in the past three games. He has little to show for it, except the victory against, well, you know. But at least he's on target.

Syracuse is 10th in the ACC in pass defense. This is a secondary Browne should solve.

Take care of business

Saturday's game is the first of seven in a row for Pitt (2-3, 0-1) against ACC opponents, and three of those are top 25 teams: N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Miami.

The lifting gets heavier, so Pitt must take advantage of lighter weights.

Narduzzi said a team with two losses can win the Coastal, but he wouldn't want to test that theory by losing to Syracuse (2-3, 0-1).

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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