No. 14 Pittsburgh (7-1, 4-0) faces Syracuse (3-5, 0-3) in a Big East matchup Saturday at noon at Heinz Field, and the Orange are among the nation's best with 88.9 rushing yards allowed per game (2.8 per attempt).
"If you look at the statistics, there's two things that stand out,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "No. 1, their defense is one of the top (in the Big East). They're the top rushing defense (in the Conference) and seventh in the nation, I believe. They have the second leading tackles for loss guy, Derrell Smith, in the Big East (with 6.5 sacks and 10 total stops behind the line).
"(And) they get their safeties involved. They're going to get up there, and they aren't going to give you any easy runs. They pressure some, first of all. They'll play man coverage, and they bring the safety up and get the extra guy in the box. They make you block their safeties. ... And they'll blitz some, too, maybe more than any team we'll play this season.''
That's actually an outlook for those to see a glass half empty. Others with the glass half full view would say that the Orange has allowed 27.4 points per game with 274.2 passing yards per game and 19 touchdowns. They allow 5.6 yards per play and 363.1 total yards per game.
So, even though the stats are solid for Syracuse's run defense, a primary reason is that the opposition has torched the Orange passing defense. And since the safeties play close to the line, including WPIAL product Max Suter, Pitt's play-action pass could be quite effective, according to fifth-year wideout Cedric McGee.
"Our main focus last week was not to get complacent and basically to keep everything going, so we've been practicing hard on staying focused on our game,'' McGee said. "(But) our passing game can always get better. ... We've got Dion Lewis in the backfield, so our passing game has to open things up.
"We know they're going to try to stop Dion, but we've got all the faith in the world in Bill Stull and the O-line has done a great job in protection. Play-action has been big for us, so against Syracuse they'll probably try to stack the box. They're physical, too, so we have to step it up in the passing game.''
And no matter what Syracuse or any opposing team tries to do to stop Pitt, redshirt sophomore fullback Henry Hynoski believes the Panthers will still attempt to run the ball as much as possible.
"We'll have to be able to run it, but that's no different than every week for our offense,'' Hynoski said. "It sets up the pass for us. So, we can't change our game plan. We just have to be physical and do what we do every week. (But) with the way that Billy's playing and our receivers, a defense has to do both.
"Last year, I think they focused more on the run. And the same thing earlier this season, but with Billy and our receivers playing incredible they have to respect both. So, we just have to complement our run game with our pass game, but that's something we've been doing great so far.''
A major difference between this season and the last two is that the Panthers have a respectable passing game, that's one that opposing defenses have to respect. In those previous years, stacking a defense against Pitt's running game with 10 in the box was an effective way to stop the Panthers' offense.
Now, with quarterback Bill Stull completing better than 67 percent of his passes for 1,654 yards and 16 touchdowns with just four interceptions, Pitt's passing game must be taken seriously. And with players like sophomore wideout Jonathan Baldwin (34 catches, 20.4 average, four TDs) and senior tight end Dorin Dickerson (32 catches, nine TDs), Stull's range varies as well.
"I think our passing game definitely complements the way that we run the ball,'' senior right offensive guard John Malecki said. "With the way that Bill Stull's throwing the ball to big-play receivers like Jonathan Baldwin and Dorin Dickerson, and then you have Mike Shanahan stepping his game up. So, that really helps the run game.
"Defenses can't bring that safety down, and they'll probably even have to get that Will (weak-side linebacker) into coverage on the one side. (But) they take a lot of pride in how they play. They don't do anything schematically that's crazy, but they play very hard whether it's in regulation or the second overtime. (So), we have to take that into consideration against Syracuse.''
Dickerson probably said it best when describing the differences between this Syracuse team and some past years.
"It just seems like they want to be out there,'' Dickerson said. "I think in the future, a couple more years, they're going to be a real good team. Their safeties play pretty well now, and their D-line does, too. So, they play a lot harder this year than they've done in the past.
"They will go out there and hit us, and they're definitely going to try to win this game. So, we've got to play our game to off-set that. I guess they have nothing to lose now. A win this week will turn their program around, but we have to make sure that doesn't happen.''
And with the way things are progressing for the Pitt football program, now certainly isn't the time to stumble.
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