The Syracuse University football program is beginning a new season within their current season as they open the doors to the Pittsburgh Panthers for a Friday night home-opener in the Big East Conference.
After starting 1-3, the Orange now reside at 0-0 in the Big East. Despite their sub-par performance through the first four games, the goal of the postseason is still attainable if they compete and emerge victorious inside their conference.
Friday night also marks the last time Syracuse will step foot onto the field for a Big East opener.
The irony is that when they face Pittsburgh again, it will be an in-conference game, except both teams will be playing for bragging rights in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
For now, the Orange and Panthers continue their quarrel in the football conference that they helped to build.
History under head coach Paul Chryst:
The Jekyll-and-Hyde theme that has occurred with the Orange has also spilled over into their upcoming foe, the Panthers. After losing their first two games by at least two touchdowns in each contest, Pittsburgh came back in their third game to defeat a Virginia Tech team that was ranked 13th in the country at the time.
Chryst comes into the game even at 2-2 in his first season as the Panthers' head coach.
Offensively for Pittsburgh:
At the helm. Quarterback Tino Sunseri has progressed with the Panthers as they have moved from their first game through to their most recent contest.
In their first game against Youngstown State, Sunseri completed 19 of his 30 pass attempts for 239 passing yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
Pittsburgh opened their Big East season early when they faced Cincinnati in only their second game of the season. Sunseri connected on 24 of his 37 passes for 278 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.
In the third match-up versus Virginia Tech, Sunseri went 19 for 28 for 283 passing yards, ending the game with three touchdowns to one interception against the highest ranked team they have been lined up on the opposite side of thus far this season.
Under center for the Panthers' most recent game against Gardner-Webb, Sunseri completed 18 of 24 passes for 344 yards, equaling his touchdown output from the week before with three, while succeeding in not throwing a pick for the first time in the last three games.
Like Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib, Sunseri also knows how to spread the ball around, finding at least seven different receivers in the Panthers' first three games and six in the team's latest match.
The Orange secondary will be challenged once again. A quarterback who is only getting more productive with time that has already defeated Syracuse before means that the corners and safeties are going to have to have better reads on Sunseri and make up for past mistakes.
On the receiving end. Wide receiver Mike Shanahan is the top target for the Syracuse secondary to stop in this match-up. Shanahan has the most receptions of the Pittsburgh receiving core with 21, adding up to the team's most receiving yards with 368. Also, like Sunseri, Shanahan has been consistently improving, increasing his yardage output from 54 yards in the first game to 144 in their last contest leading into their faceoff with the Orange this week.
Behind Shanahan is wide receiver Devin Street, who along with Sunseri and Shanahan is steadily improving. Street began with 54 yards in the first game, which has elevated to 95 yards in Pittsburgh's most recent match-up. He is second among all Panthers' receivers with 18 receptions through four games.
As mentioned before, Syracuse's secondary will definitely be challenged in this game. Safety Shamarko Thomas has taken his speed and power and translated it into a bigger defensive presence on the field than last season. However, his interception that aided Syracuse in staying in their game against USC has not happened since. Thomas is a positive but consistently nagging the opposition is where he needs to elevate to in order to give the Orange the best opportunity to win. His help along with the other safeties will be essential in stopping Shanahan, Street, and the rest of Pittsburgh's receiving core which will pose a problem to Syracuse's struggling corners.
One of those safeties that has been providing aid recently, not just to the corners but to the entire defense is free safety Jeremi Wilkes. Wilkes has gotten to the opposing quarterback, helped slow rushing attacks, and provided pressure to receivers along with hard hits to prevent completions, including those which would have led to scores.
Seeing more of free safety Durell Eskridge and strong safety Ritchy Desir in coverage can also help Syracuse attempt to shut down Pittsburgh because of Eskridge's speed to the ball and Desir's hitting ability. The talent lies within the safety unit more than the corners right now. The Orange need to play to their strengths and corners Ri'Shard Anderson and Keon Lyn have been a weakness of the defense.
Anderson still struggles in single coverage to make plays on the ball and not on the receiver, giving up yardage to pass interference penalties. Lyn can shut down receivers with his reads on the ball and good hand-eye coordination to knock down pass attempts, but he has a tendency to take plays off. His positive contributions are often erased by his lax moments that follow.
In the backfield. The Panthers have three running backs with more than 20 carries who are averaging more than five yards per carry. Ray Graham and Isaac Bennett have both crossed the threshold three times this season, while Rushel Shell has brought in a touchdown on the ground once.
Syracuse has had issues all season stopping the run, whether they are facing a single member or multiple member backfields. The Orange began the season allotting 180 rushing yards per game. In their last game versus Minnesota, they condensed that number to 106, but allowed two rushing touchdowns that gave the Golden Gophers the victory.
Be it yardage or touchdowns, Syracuse has not been able to silence any team's ground attack. With a three-headed backfield coming into the Catrier Dome, Syracuse will have to make their second half performance against Stony Brook where they allowed a mere 45 yards turn into a full game stance versus the run.
The Orange defensive line has given little to no aid as the season has progressed so the burden of stopping the run has been placed on the shoulders of the linebackers. Despite talent and an early start to what looks to be a very positive career, Dyshawn Davis has been relatively quiet this season. Marquis Spruill has been better, getting to the middle of the field to condense running plays up the middle. The best linebacker against the run has been Siriki Diabate because of his speed and ability to take down players without needing aid. He has already passed his tackle total from all of last season and still has at least eight games to go.
Defensively for Pittsburgh:
The front line. Defensive end Aaron Donald is the only returning starter from last season. So far this season, the line has been unproductive. Among defensive linemen Donald, Tyrone Ezell, and Bryan Murphy, they have accumulated between eight and nine tackles over the first four games. Between them, they have achieved four tackles for a loss and half a sack.
Syracuse's front line just got stronger with the return of Justin Pugh who reprises his role as left tackle. Pugh has proven his ability to protect Nassib and aid on the run, along with teammates left guard Zack Chibane and center Macky MacPherson. But even before his anticipated return, the left side of the line has been the most productive because of the play of left tackle Sean Hickey.
The right side has been the issue, with right tackle Lou Alexander underperforming as seen in his penalties and inability to lock up defenders and protect the backfield. Pugh's return sends Hickey to cover the right end of the offensive line which, if Hickey continues to play the way he has been, will no longer be the weakest element of the Orange offense.
Now the focus shifts to the right guard position, where Rob Trudo and Ivan Foy have split time. As they continue to gain experience, having Hickey on their side should provide enough support to make the line successful throughout. If Pugh can minimize any rust he may have and Hickey can switch to the other side and play the way he has been, Syracuse should win the battle at the line on the offensive end.
At the center of the defense. Linebackers' Shane Gordon and Nicholas Grigsby are in the top three on the entire defense in total tackles. Gordon leads all Panther defenders with 28 tackles, while Grigsby is close behind with 21. Gordon has assisted in as many tackles as he has provided on his own, splitting his 28 tackles evenly with 14 solo and 14 assisted.
The Orange have a deep rushing attack that needs to be utilized. If Gordon and Grigsby get a lock on Jerome Smith, there is Prince-Tyson Gulley, Ashton Broyld, and the still unseen Adonis Ameen-Moore, George Morris, III, and DeVante McFarlane. With so many runners, each with their own talents, Syracuse should rotate if one player cannot get in a rhythm.
However, if Smith, Gulley, or Broyld have repeated success against the Panthers, it is up to offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley, and head coach Doug Marrone to either allow that rusher to stay in rhythm or continue to rotate despite who is playing well, which has caused the Orange offense to falter at times. Smith has been successful running between the tackles, while Gulley has some of the best hands on the offense, including among receivers. If for any reason they are silenced, Broyld can catch, run, and potentially pass, while Moore can and should be used inside the three-yard line.
Against the pass. Safety Jason Hendricks has three interceptions to lead the Panthers' secondary going into this game, with fellow safety Jarred Holley attaining the other interception. They both have one pass breakup.
Linebacker Gordon leads the team with the most pass breakups with five.
Cornerback K'Waun Williams and strong safety Andrew Taglianetti join Holley as the most experienced members of the secondary. Between these two, they have 27 tackles through four games, but have only amounted a half of a tackle for a loss to go with no pass breakups or interceptions.
Though the experienced secondary members have not all dominated, Marrone stressed that the corners on Pittsburgh are physical and will force receivers to beat them in single coverage.
In Syracuse's favor, they have so many options in the receiving core that physical corners can still be beat because they cannot account, even with help from the safeties, for everyone. Receivers Marcus Sales, Jarrod West, and Alec Lemon have all been instrumental in moving the chains, while tight end Beckett Wales, running backs Smith and Gulley, and receiver Christopher Clark have also made plays in the passing game.
Nassib has spread the ball, throwing to at least seven different receivers in each of Syracuse's first four games.
Also aiding the passing attack is the institution of wide receiver Adrian Flemming into the offense. He has not played a down this season and was rarely utilized last season, meaning there is little tape for opponents to watch on him. Add in that he had some of the best hands in Fall camp and the Orange can take an already superior receiving core in depth and make themselves even harder to cover, no matter how strong a secondary may be.
Keys to the game:
Pittsburgh. The Panthers' three-headed rushing attack is their best opportunity to defeat the Orange. Even with Syracuse's improvements against the run, they have yet to find a way to take that element away from an opposing offense. The more runners on an opposing offense, the better the odds of getting the Orange defense back on its heels.
But with or without an established running game, Sunseri can still have success in the passing attack if Anderson and Lyn fail to improve in their coverage. Anderson rarely covers and Lyn rarely covers for an entire game. Challenging these corners, therefore, stand to aid the Pittsburgh offense.
Against the Orange offense, the Panthers will struggle in the passing game because double-coverage does not prove beneficial against a team like Syracuse with so many targets. The rushing attack also provides many options for the Orange. A split back situation may cause problems for Pittsburgh because of the talents possessed by the Orange backfield as well as their double-threat as runners and receivers.
The best opportunity for Pittsburgh to silence the offense is to let them silence themselves as they have done before.
On special teams, the Panthers can give themselves opportunities for good field position and even scores because of the poor positioning and tackling of the Orange. This phase of the game is where Pittsburgh can truly take advantage of Syracuse's weaknesses.
Syracuse. The Orange had numerous opportunities to score handed to them by their defense, which they did not capitalize on versus Minnesota. With all of the depth at running back and wide receiver and a Heisman-caliber quarterback in Nassib, Syracuse should not be struggling to move the ball. Presumably with Pugh and Hickey on the offensive line together, Nassib will be protected even more. With the time and the talent on the field, the Orange should pose problems to any team, including Pittsburgh.
Defensively, Syracuse needs to continue its progression. The defense has made positive moves against opponents' rushing attacks and forced more three-and-outs recently, but all three lines of the defense need to be more than just one key player.
It is no secret that the special teams' unit is the worst of all three phases of Syracuse's game. The returning specialists need to be reevaluated to find who has the best initial speed and can make the smartest decisions in traffic. Jeremiah Kobena would be the premiere choice for kickoff and punt returns because he exhibits these traits, but he is still injured and has yet to be given an opportunity on punt returns.
Kicker Ross Krautman is four of seven in his field goal attempts this season. The farther he gets from the uprights, the worse he is. Krautman needs to improve to take stress off of the offense, letting them know that they can be confident in his foot when needed.
Syracuse gives up three touchdowns in the game, two through the air and one on the ground, but Justin Pugh's return and a fresh start spark the Orange to edge the Panthers by a field goal, 24-21 Syracuse.