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Pittsburgh Panthers vs. Syracuse Orange Preview and Prediction

Pat Narduzzi

Pat Narduzzi

For the first time in five years, the Pittsburgh Panthers (5-1) are nationally ranked following a school record 56-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter from Chris Blewitt to beat Georgia Tech last Saturday, 31-28.

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Many are saying Pitt is the favorite to win the Atlantic Coast Conference's Coastal Division.

Now, the Panthers face a familiar foe when they travel to Syracuse (3-3).

The Orange feasted on a weak schedule early on before losing their last three games. One highlight during this streak was a rather competitive game on Sept. 26 with eighth-ranked LSU, falling 34-24 at the Carrier Dome in a game Tigers running back Leonard Fournette was the difference, establishing himself as the Heisman Trophy frontrunner with 244 yards and two touchdowns.

But with North Carolina, whom the Panthers are tied in the loss column with atop the Coastal Division, coming to Pittsburgh next week, and Notre Dame and Duke after that, this game does have the feel of a let down written all over it.

Is Pitt a true contender, or can Syracuse get back into the bowl picture?

Pittsburgh at Syracuse

Kickoff: 12 p.m. ET (Saturday)

TV: ESPNU

Spread: Pitt -6.5

Three things to watch

1. Can Syracuse stop the Pitt rushing attack?

The success of the Panthers has come despite the fact James Conner tore up his knee in the season's first game and was lost for the season. Still, head coach Pat Narduzzi has continued to see his ground game flourish behind Qadree Ollison, who in 95 carries has the same 5.9 yards per carry average Conner did last year in rushing for 1,765 yards.

Now comes the question — can Cuse can stop the Pitt running game? The Orange completely shut down the running games of their first three opponents before Fournette produced several long, dazzling runs.

Ollison isn't Fournette, but is he sophomore Marlon Mack, the South Florida running back who rushed for 186 yards against the Orange on Oct. 10?

Here's how it's going for the Orange this year. Their leading tackler is sophomore Parris Bennett, an up-and-coming star.

The second leading tackler is a safety.

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2. Tyler Boyd, possession receiver or burner?

Scouts view Tyler Boyd as one of the top five receiving prospects in college football.

So how come he is averaging less than 10 yards a reception?

Perhaps it is because Boyd is still the Panthers' go-to receiver. He set the Pitt career receptions record against the Yellow Jackets last Saturday, and consistently throwing to a receiver will lower his average. Boyd, the only one of Pitt's preseason trio including Conner and Chad Voytik to still be playing regularly, is still productive having caught touchdown passes in the last two games to give him four scoring catches on the year.

Senior Julian Whigham will likely be covering Boyd in this game. If he can keep Boyd from splash plays then Cuse has a chance.

3. Can Pitt stop the revamped Syracuse offense?

Syracuse wasn't expected to be much of an offensive juggernaut this season, but they've scored at least 24 points in every game this year.

They've done it despite losing two quarterbacks this season. Starter Terrel Hunt was lost for the season with a torn right Achilles in the opener. Freshman Eric Dungey missed the LSU game after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit against Eastern Michigan, leaving Cuse to be led by walk-on Zach Mahoney and sophomore Austin Wilson at times this year.

Dungey is back now and had a highlight reel 26-yard run for a touchdown last Saturday in a 44-38 overtime loss to Virginia. He was efficient, not throwing an interception, but also not generally prolific, accounting for fewer than 250 yards despite his dual abilities.

Pitt likes to blitz, but like the Panthers, the Orange want to run with Jordan Fredricks more than throw. The Panthers were one of the stingiest defenses against the run in college football prior to the Georgia Tech game, but the Yellow Jackets' option always gives opponents trouble.

The stars of the Pitt defense, which is still ranked in the Top 20 overall nationally and is allowing fewer than 300 yards a game, are pass rusher Ejuan Price, middle linebacker Matt Galambos, and defensive tackle Tyrique Jarrett. Syracuse's ability to keep their offense in high gear may come down to whether or not Dungey can cross up the Panthers' pass rush with long scrambles.

We had to tell ya:

Blewitt's long game-winning field goal last week was not only the longest in Pitt history, but exceeded the Steelers' record by one yard. Gary Anderson kicked a 55-yarder in 1984, and Kris Brown tied that mark in 2001.

But those were not the longest field goals in Pittsburgh professional football history. Former Pitt kicker Eric Schubert kicked a 56-yarder in 1984 for the USFL Pittsburgh Maulers.

The Maulers were to be coached by Hank Bullough for the 1985 season, but the team wound up merging with the Baltimore Stars for the final USFL campaign. Bullough's son Chuck is now the defensive coordinator of Syracuse.   

Final Analysis

Syracuse is showing signs of making progress, but Pitt has too many weapons and is too strong defensively against a team without any true offensive stars. A let down is possible, but Pitt has taken 9 of 10 from the Orange.

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Prediction: Pitt 29, Syracuse 22

— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson began contributing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. He has covered the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.