Pitt-Syracuse Preview

Pitt football coach Dave Wannstedt has been a bit tense this week, but when one thinks about it that's not difficult to understand.

Wannstedt knows that despite guiding No. 14 Pittsburgh to the program's best start since 1982, the Panthers basically haven't accomplished anything. Sure, they're 7-1 overall with a disheartening come-from-ahead loss at North Carolina State the only blemish, but Pitt also is 4-0 in the Big East.

So, the Conference title is still within reach with four games remaining, including one with Syracuse (3-5, 0-3) today at noon at Heinz Field. The most difficult games on Pitt's schedule follow -- against Notre Dame Nov. 14, at West Virginia Nov. 27 and with No. 5 Cincinnati Dec. 5 -- with the final two likely to decide the Big East championship.

That's if the Panthers don't falter against Syracuse, which has given them fits since Wannstedt returned to his alma mater after the 2004 season. And that's why Wannstedt is a little tighter than usual.

"Traditionally, Pitt-Syracuse has always been a back-and-forth game,'' Wannstedt said. "And it's been a competitive game, so we've got to play better than we have to be successful Saturday. (But) it will not be a trap game, because our players know what type of football players Syracuse has.

"And it's a Conference game. And they've always played us tough. ... Last year, we were behind by 11 and had to fight our way back. The year before, it was the fourth quarter, and it was tied. (And) there was a period there (when) Syracuse won (11) in a row.

"So, this game is one with two teams that have great tradition and great pride,'' Wannstedt added. "And our players know that we've got to play good football to have a chance to win. (And) our guys know what they need to do to get to that point. So, we'll be ready for another good game.''

Ironically, Pitt leads the overall series 31-30 with three ties since 1916. Wannstedt is 4-0 against Syracuse with a 34-24 victory last fall. The Panthers lost 38-31 in double-overtime in 2004, their Fiesta Bowl season as Big East co-champions. Pitt also lost 24-17 in double-overtime in 2000 and lost the following year as well to cap a run with 11 straight victories for the Orange.

Syracuse has been inconsistent under first-year head coach Doug Marrone, but the Orange has not been a pushover like the final few years in the previous regime. And the staff is trying to do things the right way, so there were several suspensions this past week that will hamper Syracuse.

However, it could galvanize a team that lost its No. 1 receiver, Mike Williams, who had 49 catches for 746 yards (15.2 per catch) and six TDs in just seven games. Running back Antwon Bailey (second with 184 yards rushing, five per carry), backup defensive end Torrey Ball and offensive guard Andrew Tiller also were suspended for violating team rules. Williams reportedly quit the team.

Junior part-time starting defensive end Jared Kimmel (two sacks) must have season-ending knee surgery, but center Jim McKenzie will return against Pitt.

"I know they lost some guys, but I prepared our guys just like everyone was playing,'' Pitt secondary coach Jeff Hafley said. "We have to be ready for anything, and I'm sure the backups will be just as ready to play.''

Offensively, quarterback Greg Paulus leads the way for the Orange. A first-year starter after being out of football for five years, Paulus was a former guard for the Duke men's basketball team. He has completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,377 yards and 10 touchdowns with 11 interceptions.

"Obviously, he's a great athlete,'' Pitt quarterback Bill Stull said. "To play basketball at that type of level and now play football at this type of level, it's a great tribute to his athleticism. He's a terrific athlete.

"And to play quarterback at this type of level, that's tough by itself, but he's playing very well. And we have to guard against their big-play potential.''

Without Williams and Bailey, Syracuse loses a large part of that potential on offense, but that doesn't mean the Orange is void of talent. Ryan Nassib also is used occasionally at quarterback, and he has thrown for 247 yards (56.2 percent) and two scores. The top running back, by far now, is Delone Carter with 580 yards (3.9 average) and eight scores.

"They've been bringing Nassib in for certain situations,'' Wannstedt said. "He's kind of their Wildcat guy. He's their option guy. He looks like he has a strong arm throwing the ball down the field. Paulus is, because of his experience and his maturity, more in control of things out there. We're going to see both.

"We could see Nassib a lot more. That would not surprise me. I don't know that. We'll be prepared for both. ... Carter is probably a little stronger, more of a true running back (than Bailey). Both are very talented. Both run extremely hard. You have to tackle both of those guys and get them on the ground.''

After Williams, five Syracuse players have double-digit catches. However, Williams has 31 catches more than No. 2 Donte Davis (18 for 184 and one score). Bailey was next with 17 catches, and then comes Marcus Sales (14-155, 3 TDs), Alec Lemon (13-83) and Cody Catalina (10-84, 1).

Defensively, senior linebacker Derrell Smith leads Syracuse with 71 tackles, including 52 solo, 6.5 sacks, 10 total stops behind the line, two pass breakups, four forced fumbles and two recovered.

Linebacker Doug Hogue has three sacks and six stops behind the line, while safety Max Suter has 65 tackles (43 solo), three pass breakups and an interception. But the Orange has just five total picks.

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