Pitt football-Syracuse preview

The University of Pittsburgh football team will venture to the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, NY to take on the Orange. PantherDigest.com provides fans with a solid preview of the game. Read on.

PITTSBURGH -- When the University of Pittsburgh visits the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y. Saturday at noon, it will be a matchup between the Orange's irresistible defensive force against Pitt's immovable offensive line.

The Panthers (4-1) have allowed just four sacks this season, an amazing turnaround from last year, while Syracuse (3-2) leads the nation by dropping opposing quarterbacks 25 times behind the line.

"The surprising thing is they have two sacks by corners,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "I think the safety has a sack or two. The linebackers have a few. (Mostly), it's been their defensive linemen.

"Those guys, they've gotten a lot of sacks by just by rushing three. They've gotten sacks by rushing four. They're not blitzing all the time when they come up with their sacks.'' The Orange defense also has nine interceptions.

"Most of them have come off pressure from their defensive linemen,'' Wannstedt said. "I don't know the exact number, two or three have been deflected passes. (And) the secondary, they make good plays.

"They've got experience back there (with) two seniors and two juniors. Two of them were starters for the past two years, one corner and one safety, (so) it's an experienced group.''

The Syracuse defense has 39 total tackles behind the line. This should concern Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko, but the fifth-year senior has enough experience to know the Panthers have to be ready for every opponent.

"Their defense has always been good,'' Palko said, "and they have a lot of good players there. ... Whether or not you're facing a good secondary or an inexperienced secondary, your reads have to be on key. I don't think they do anything special back there. They just have a lot of good football players.''

Senior middle linebacker Kelvin Smith is by far the leading Orange tackler with 53 total stops and 29 solo. He also has 2.5 sacks. Palko should get to know defensive end Jameel McLain. He leads with seven sacks. Senior cornerbacks Tanard Jackson and Terrell Lemon and sophomore backup free safety A.J. Brown have two interceptions each.

"They really haven't pressured the way the teams do that we faced the past couple weeks,'' Palko said. "They're more like Michigan State. They're good up front, and they get enough pressure with those four guys.

"But that has a lot to do with their interceptions as well. When you can pressure with four guys, you can put seven in coverage. And you'll have more back there to pick balls off. ... But we'll have to do a good job protecting, especially when they just rush four.''

The Panthers will also have to deal with a loud Carrier Dome crowd, so the team practice all week with noise blaring in the background. When teams visit Syracuse, its vocal fans are another obstacle to overcome. This will be Pitt's second road game, too, so the preparation has been a bit different.

Pitt's last trip to Syracuse had the host pulling out a 38-31 win in double overtime. The Panthers had a lead, but blew several chances to seal it. Last year at Heinz Field, Pitt won, 34-17, and have won three of the past four. However, the Pa are just 3-9-1 at the Carrier Dome since 1980.

Wannstedt believed the best way for his team to handle this is not to get hung up on where the game is and just concentrate on the opponent. The Orange has played better the past few weeks under second-year coach Greg Robinson after losing at Wake Forest in its opener and at home to Iowa in double OT. Syracuse has won three straight, including a double-overtime home win against Wyoming last week, and averaged 35 points in the wins.

Senior quarterback Perry Patterson is better in his second season with Robinson. While he has completed slightly less than 51 percent of his passes for 706 yards, he has thrown seven TDs with just two picks. At 6-foot-4 and 242 pounds, the athletic Patterson is also tough to bring down.

The running game, however, is the key. Sophomore tailback Curtis Brinkley leads with 326 yards and one score, while backup Delone Carter -- a freshman who splits the carries -- has 274 yards and four touchdowns.

Junior Taj Smith was the leading receiver with 12 catches for 227 yards and three scores and the No. 3 rusher in just four games, but he broke his collarbone and is out for the year. Syracuse has had to regroup at wideout, so sophomore tight end Tom Ferron -- the backup -- and senior slotback Tim Lane have 11 catches each. Ferron has scored twice.

"They're committed to the run,'' Wannstedt said. "They're averaging 65 plays on offense. They shorten the game. They run the ball and use play action. If they had their choice, they'd run it down your throat.''

So, Pitt's defensive line will need to be immovable as well.

Notes: DT Mick Williams (shoulder) is out, while DE Charles Sallet (ankle) is questionable. TB Kevin Collier (ankle) is probable. ... Lowell Robinson moved from wideout to the secondary. ... Chris Vangas is the first center-guard off the bench. ... Jason Pinkston is the backup RT, while Chase Clowser is at LT.

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