Former Big East rivals, now ACC foes face off at Heinz Field
One that dates back to 1916 and has been an annual fixture since 1955 continues here in the strange year of 2020 on Saturday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
But that doesn't mean the world-wide health crisis isn't playing a part in the proceedings, with players from each school opting out of the college football campaign.
Syracuse has taken the big hit with two running backs, senior Abdul Adams and junior Jarveon Howard, and redshirt freshman defensive lineman Cooper Dawson electing to sit the season. Given that Howard and Adams, who transferred from Oklahoma prior to last season, were the Orange's top returning rushers with 337 and 336 rushing yards, respectively, it's a hit to the ground game.
Meanwhile, the Panthers lost a giant talent in defensive lineman Jaylen Twyman, a junior who had 41 tackles and 10.5 sacks last fall and was named a preseason Athlon Sports second-team All-American, when he decided to opt out and focus on the 2021 NFL Draft.
Without Twyman, however, Pittsburgh pitched a shutout — albeit over FCS opponent Austin Peay — in last Saturday's season opener at Heinz Field. The 55-0 victory, the largest under sixth-year head coach Pat Narduzzi, saw the Panthers put up six TDs in the first half alone, helping them to climb onto the AP Top 25 at No. 25.
That means Syracuse will face a ranked opponent on the road for the second weekend in a row after falling 31-6 to then-No. 18 North Carolina last Saturday. The loss snapped the Orange's streak of six straight season-opening wins.
Pitt has won six of the seven meetings with Syracuse since both joined the ACC in the 2013 season. Further, the Panthers have won eight in a row at home over the Orange, a streak that does back to their days together in the Big East, and a reason why they lead the overall series 40-31-3.
Syracuse at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 19 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: Pittsburgh -22.5
When Syracuse Has the Ball
Orange quarterback Tommy DeVito has an impressive stat going reaching far back into 2019 — he's kept a clean-sheet, throwing 201 straight passes without an interception. The trouble is he's not finding enough of his own receivers during this streak. Last week against North Carolina, the junior completed just 13 of 31 pass attempts for 112 yards, although he didn't get any help from a leaky offensive line.
Fellow junior wide receiver Taj Harris was DeVito's top target, recording five receptions for a team-high 64 yards. As was already referenced earlier, the ground game didn't provide much production, managing 68 yards on 35 carries
Things won't get any easier for Syracuse against Pitt, who stifled Austin Peay to 137 total yards, including a grand total of one on the ground. The Panthers are considered one of the top defenses in the ACC and that was certainly the case against the Governors.
Even without Jalen Twyman, Pitt boasts plenty of talent on defense in safeties Paris Ford and Damar Hamlin as well as defensive lineman Patrick Jones II, who had 8.5 sacks last year.
The Orange saw enough defense last week in Chapel Hill to leave a bad taste in their mouths, and it probably won't get any better this Saturday at Heinz.
When Pittsburgh Has the Ball
It's not your usual run-first offense in Pitt these days. There's more focus on the passing game, but whether that translates under the direction of senior quarterback Kenny Pickett is the question.
Last week against Austin Peay, Pickett was 14-of-20 for 277 yards and a touchdown. So he did the job — some say even better than the stats suggest — but it came against an FCS defense.
Pickett spread his targets out, completing passes to 10 different receivers with freshman Jordan Addison leading the way with seven catches, although he totaled 35 yards on those.
The good news for Pickett and the Panthers is that seniors Taysir Mack and Lucas Krull are expected to return after missing last week's opener. Mack was second last year on the team with 63 receptions for 736 yards and three touchdowns.
On the ground, Pitt has its top three rushers from last season back and it was sophomore Vincent Davis who made the biggest splash in the opener, picking up 43 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries.
Against North Carolina, Syracuse's defense held its own through the first three quarters and forced three turnovers from the Tar Heels, including picking off Tar Heels quarterback Sam Howell twice and also sacking him twice, But in the end, the Orange surrendered 463 total yards (303 passing, 160 rushing) and were outscored 21-0 in the fourth quarter, so there's plenty of room for improvement. One bright spot for Syracuse was redshirt freshman defensive back Garrett Williams, who led the team with nine tackles and also was credited with a pass breakup.
Syracuse's difficult start continues with a road game against Pitt. The Orange's schedule lightens up somewhat after this game, so it would be understandable for them to look ahead somewhat.
But you would expect that pride should kick in for any meeting with a familiar foe and Syracuse should benefit somewhat from its season-opening loss to North Carolina compared to the glorified walkthrough the Panthers had against FCS member Austin Peay.
Still, it won't much matter with Pitt holding a decided advantage on paper, just like the Tar Heels. The Panthers, who are by far the better team in multiple aspects, should win easily on Saturday to open their ACC slate.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 30, Syracuse 10