5 things to watch in Pitt-Syracuse: Look for tight Panthers win at Carrier Dome
Recent history, logical analysis and Las Vegas tell us Pitt should defeat Syracuse in a close game Friday night at the Carrier Dome.
The Orange (3-3, 0-2 ACC) were 21st in the Associated Press poll a little more than a month ago. But their victories are unimpressive (Liberty, Western Michigan and Holy Cross). Pitt surely doesn’t want to see its name on that list Saturday morning.
Plus, Syracuse was rudely manhandled twice (63-20 by unranked Maryland and 41-3 by No. 3 Clemson).
Pitt (4-2, 1-1) is favored by 3½ points but has issues of its own. So far, it has proven to be a survivor. The Panthers were up on Duke, 26-3, until late in the third quarter, but lost the lead in about 16 minutes and needed their third consecutive late rally to win the game.
To put things in perspective, here are five thoughts about the 75th game in the Pitt-Syracuse series — third-most frequent matchup for the Panthers after West Virginia and Penn State.
1. Nothing comes easy
The series began in 1916 (a 30-0 Pitt victory) and the teams have met every year since 1955 when the Panthers defeated Jim Brown and the Orange, 22-12. Friday’s game occurs 100 years to the day of Syracuse’s first victory against Pitt, 24-3, on Oct. 18, 1919.
Back to the more recent past, five of the past seven Pitt-Syracuse games have been decided by margins of three points or fewer points or gone into overtime. Since both joined the ACC in 2013, Pitt is 5-1 against Syracuse.
Look for kicker Alex Kessman to play an important role in deciding the outcome. He missed five of his first eight field-goal attempts, but the only miss in four tries since then came from 57 yards. In 2017, he broke a 15-year-old Carrier Dome record and tied the Pitt mark with a 56-yard field goal (one of three that day).
2. Pitt’s ‘D’ improving, but …
The video from Pitt’s game against Central Florida game last month should have been must-see viewing for the Syracuse coaching staff. UCF connected on 65-, 50- and 41-yard completions.
“They’re going to watch UCF, and they’re going to chuck it deep,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “So, we practiced those and the quick screens they have in their arsenal. They’re not going to throw 3-yard passes all day.”
Narduzzi said Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito has “the arm talent to do it.”
But DeVito is dealing with an upper-body injury. Syracuse.com reported DeVito wore an extra layer of padding around his torso and reached for his rib area during warmups before last week’s 16-10 loss to N.C. State.
3. Whipple a key hire
Perhaps nothing Narduzzi has done since he was hired nearly five years ago is as important as his hiring of Mark Whipple.
“We felt like we needed to throw,” the head coach said. “We just couldn’t survive if we think we can run the ball and can’t, and have no passing game.”
Narduzzi thought quarterback Kenny Pickett’s development should have occurred sooner than this season when he has climbed to second in the ACC (14th in the nation) in passing yards per game (274).
“Everybody talks about Whipple,” Narduzzi said, “and what he’s done with Kenny Pickett and getting him to where I thought he could have been two years ago, to be honest with you.”
Narduzzi pointed out Pickett threw the winning touchdown pass to V’Lique Carter while facing a heavy Duke pass rush.
“A year ago, I believe, he might have gotten sacked. And who knows what else happens?
“It’s coach Whipple knowing what Kenny likes.”
4. 5th game for 3 freshmen
Narduzzi didn’t name names, but he said he won’t hesitate to burn a freshman’s redshirt, even if he has played in four games.
Running back Vincent Davis, linebacker Brandon George and wide receiver Jared Wayne fall into that category.
“We’re playing to win,” Narduzzi said. “We’ll worry about them next year. Keep recruiting more guys and turn the roster over a little bit quicker.”
5. Cleanup is necessary
Pitt has committed an excessive number of penalties (28) in the past two games, dropping the Panthers to 122nd of 130 FBS teams with a total of 53 for a loss of 499 yards.
“I don’t think there’s a discipline problem at all,” Narduzzi said.
In any case, game officials are advised to keep their yellow hankies handy. Syracuse is 124th — and last in the Power 5 — with 55 penalties.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .