The First Quarter
The defense began the first half of this match-up the way they played their last game versus Minnesota: by making statements. Defensive end Brandon Sharpe sack Tino Sunseri on Pittsburgh's opening drive that helped set a positive tone for the Orange early in the game.
The Panthers were forced to punt and it was up to the offense to make the most of the opportunity given to them by the defense, something they failed to do against Minnesota. Quarterback Ryan Nassib completed all four of his attempts on Syracuse's opening drive and was aided by balance. Running backs Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley both gained positive yardage, with Gulley aiding in the passing game, catching a pass from Nassib that he took to the Pittsburgh one-yard line.
The right decision was made on the next play, when running back Adonis Ameen-Moore came in for the first time this season, powering his way into the endzone, giving the Orange an early advantage at 7-0.
On the following kickoff, Syracuse's special teams' unit exhibited better speed, positioning, and tackling than has been expected, with linebacker Dan Vaughn stopping the Panthers at their own 10-yard line.
Despite Pittsburgh gaining more yards than their previous drive, their kicker Kevin Harper failed to cash in through the uprights, giving the ball back to Syracuse. But the Orange gave it right back with a quick three-and-out.
The Panthers' second-most productive receiver coming into this game, Devin Street, got involved on the next Pittsburgh drive as Syracuse cornerback Ri'Shard Anderson lagged on coverage.
Making up for his fellow secondary member, free safety Jeremi Wilkes grabbed onto Panthers' tight end Drew Carswell, knocking the ball out of his hands for a fumble, which was picked up and returned by teammate, linebacker Dyshawn Davis, raising Syracuse's lead to 14-0, which they kept going into the following quarter.
The Second Quarter
Pittsburgh continued their possession from the end of the first quarter, with Sunseri completing five of his six passing attempts. With the Panthers switching to their running game, Orange defensive tackle Jay Bromley stuffed running back Ray Graham on what appeared to be on second and third down. But the third down rush by Graham was ruled a touchdown despite the ball looking to cross the threshold after Graham was down. The play was reviewed and upheld, shortening Syracuse's lead to a touchdown, 14-7.
On Syracuse's first drive of the second quarter, Nassib completed seven of his eight attempts, including a gutsy offensive decision to go for the first down on 4th-and-9. That completion went to wide receiver Jarrod West. However, the most notable completion of the drive went to the wrong team when Nassib tried for wide receiver Marcus Sales in single coverage. Pittsburgh cornerback K'Waun Williams stepped in front of Sales and with that one reception silenced a strong Orange offensive drive.
The defense bailed out the offense from their turnover on their next opportunity against the Pittsburgh offense. Sharpe amounted his second sack of the game to send the Panthers back nine yards. Then, linebacker Cameron Lynch got to Sunseri before he reached the first down marker; Sunseri appeared to fall back on his feet which were underneath him, coming out of the game and Pittsburgh would punt.
It was a quick three-and-out for Syracuse after Nassib was sacked by Pittsburgh's only returning starter on the defensive line, defensive end Aaron Donald, resulting in a punt by the Orange.
Sunseri returned on Pittsburgh's next drive, finding leading receiver Mike Shanahan, who had been relatively quiet through the first half. Junior college transfer, defensive tackle Zian Jones, got involved on the defense and Sunseri was hurried by fellow lineman, defensive tackle Deon Goggins, along with Lynch. Syracuse's defense forced Pittsburgh into a 40-yard field goal attempt. Orange head coach Doug Marrone tried to ice Panthers' kicker Kevin Harper by calling timeout, but Harper missed on the attempt that did not count and connected on his following try. Syracuse's lead was cut to 14-10 going into intermission.
The Third Quarter
Gulley started the Orange offense off the same way Smith did in the first half, with progressive running. He gained 20 yards on his first three carries before losing one yard on his next. But the positive start for the running attack was stalled by the overall offense and Syracuse punted the ball away.
Wilkes was all over Graham on Pittsburgh's next offensive drive, making up for missed tackles by his teammates to stop the Panthers' running back from gaining a first down on more than one occasion, the latter forcing a punt.
Sales made history on Syracuse's next drive, reeling in his 100th reception of his collegiate career, but the offensive line broke down leaving Nassib with little to work with and the team having to punt the ball right back to Pittsburgh.
Sharpe continued to put his stamp on this game with a tackle for a loss to begin the defensive stance. However, the secondary failed to aid the defensive line, leaving Shanahan wide open for a 46-yard catch and run to the Syracuse 11-yard line. The linebackers picked up their game from here with Davis only allowing Pittsburgh running back Isaac Bennett a yard. Then, linebacker Siriki Diabate attempted to pump up his defense as their quarterback, so to speak, and it worked, negating a touchdown opportunity and making the Panthers settle for a field goal, despite being on the 10-yard line of the Orange.
Syracuse provided little on their next possession, with the offensive line giving up a sack and another three-and-out giving up the ball.
The Fourth Quarter
Syracuse went into the closing quarter ahead by one point at 14-13 with the pigskin in the hands of their Big East adversary.
They responded by stopping Pittsburgh twice for no gain. Then, Sharpe caught the offensive line once again for his tic-tac-toe sack, third of the game.
The Panthers aided the Orange with three false start penalties on the drive and eventually punted the ball away.
Defensive back Cullen Christian and the aforementioned Donald willed the ball back to their offense, forcing Syracuse to punt after only getting to their own 31-yard line.
With another opportunity to get a field goal minimum to take the lead, the Panthers took to the field. Sunseri completed three passes of 15 yards or more to three different receivers to get Pittsburgh within field goal range at the Syracuse 17-yard line. On the second of these two completions, Orange strong safety Shamarko Thomas attempted to make a tackle on Panthers' tight end J.P. Holtz, coming in hard. Players immediately knelt down on the field in respect and hopes for Thomas who laid on the field. Thomas eventually got up and walked off the field, a blessing for himself and his family. His status remains unknown at this time, but at least he left the field on his own strength.
With Pittsburgh on their 17-yard line, Syracuse responded with back-to-back sacks, the first credited to Sharpe who was not satisfied with a mere hat trick sack night. The next came off the end from cornerback Brandon Reddish who was getting his first playing time since an injury during the Stony Brook game. Reddish came in hard and took down Sunseri without a fight, taking the Panthers out of field goal range. On what looked to be an easier attempt at a field goal, which would have given Pittsburgh a two-point lead around the five-minute mark, turned into a punt and an opportunity for Syracuse to close out the game.
Smith, Gulley, and Nassib took turns running the ball with one pass attempt, a completion to Lemon. After that attempt, the ball was placed in the hands of Moore, the running back who took his first carry of the season in for a touchdown in the first quarter. The player who started the positive push for the Orange was now asked to finish with another push, and he did just that. Moore gained two first downs among his four carries, the last coming when Pittsburgh had no more timeouts. You are only as good as you finish, and Moore did not disappoint whenever the ball was placed in his care.
At the end of the game, Marrone spoke on how Moore became the player chosen to move the ball and the clock late in this game. "I think the offensive coaches…have done a nice job, you know, from a personnel standpoint," said Marrone. "They're very pleased with Adonis [Ameen-Moore]."
After crediting his offensive staff with the decision to trust in Moore, he expounded on why Moore was chosen and shared his appreciation for him. "He's worked extremely hard to be in that position," expressed Marrone. "Obviously, it's a very important position, so it's one you have to have a high level of trust. The coaches have that and the players around have that in Adonis. He's worked hard, and I'm happy for him. I'm proud of him."
The Orange offense relied on the ground in this game, with Nassib failing to throw a touchdown for the first time all season. He finished with 185 passing yards, completing 19 of his 30 attempts, with one interception.
This game also marked the first time all season that Nassib did not connect with at least seven receivers; five receivers caught passes from Nassib in this contest.
Smith, Gulley, Moore, and Nassib accumulated 120 rushing yards on 33 carries, with Smith leading the backfield with 61 yards on 10 carries for an impressive average of 6.1 yards per carry.
Though Moore ended the game strong for the offense and the rushing attack was utilized and did not disappoint, the offensive unit owes the defense yet another thank you, as the defense held Pittsburgh to 13 points with no help from the offense after the first quarter; the offense did not attain a single point in the final three quarters.
Heavily responsible for the defense's premiere play was defensive end Brandon Sharpe. Defensive line coach Tim Daoust shared his excitement for Sharpe's performance after the long road Sharpe has taken to get to what he meant to the Orange in this match. "He did a phenomenal job, [I'm] really proud of that kid, because as we know, it's been a long road for Brandon," said Daoust. "He came in here as a highly recruited kid and played as a true freshman, has never been redshirted. [He] has really battled, to really work hard, so I'm really proud of the young man when he gets his time into the program and here on a big stage, our first Big East game, he did a phenomenal job for us."
On the losing end of the match, Panthers' head coach, Paul Chryst shared his thoughts after the game. "Obviously I tip my hat to Syracuse," said Chryst. "They made more plays and won the game. I thought it was an official game, the guys on both teams laid it out there, and you appreciate that."
Chryst mentioned Syracuse's final touchdown, which came off of a Pittsburgh fumble and was returned by the defense, as a self-inflicted wound by the Panthers. "Obviously the first half, the fumble turned for a touchdown, we did enough stuff to beat ourselves in many ways."
Despite the loss, Chryst honored the fight that both the Orange and Panthers exhibited. "…I thought both sides competed, competed, competed."
The Orange begin their Big East season at 1-0 and improve to 2-3 overall with their win over the Panthers.
They will compete to get back even at .500 when they take on another Big East foe, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, on the road on Saturday, October 13th.