Syracuse football had extra time to prepare for Pittsburgh heading into its Friday night showdown on national television, and it appeared the Orange needed every bit of it. The defensive battle ended with SU on top 14-13, sending ‘Cuse to 2-3 on the year.
Ryan Nassib and company stormed down the field on their first drive Friday night for six points, but only threatened the end zone once more in the win. As the game progressed, SU's offense did not. Nassib was solid out of the gate, completing 11 of his first 13 passes with quick decisions and confident throws. No matter the down, he seemed poised to move the sticks for the Orange – doing it all the way down the field to set up the first score.
Nassib led other drives with savvy running when the defense allowed it, particularly against man coverage, which also led to first downs. But after the hot start as a passer, the redshirt senior would complete less than 50 percent of his tosses. The peak of his ineffectiveness was on the heels of a balanced drive, when Nassib underthrew a ball in the end zone that was intercepted. His improving deep ball was not evident throughout the night on the way to 19 of 30 passing for just 185 yards.
Where Nassib was ineffective, his backfield mates were. The running game was steady throughout the night, again led by Jerome Smith. On just 10 carries, the junior fell forward every time he had the chance to get his hands on the ball while running hard in between handoffs. Smith even showed leaping ability by hurdling a defender late in the contest to help preserve the lead and he actually bounced outside effectively after breaking a pair of tackles on one particular run. Prince-Tyson Gulley only managed half the yards as Smith did (30) on the same amount of carries, but he again flashed the elusiveness that makes him a homerun threat on any given play. Gulley added 25 yards as a pass-catcher, a role the offense seems to click with via screens and leak-outs. Ashton Broyld didn't get a single touch this week, and that was OK because Adonis Ameen-Moore filled a role that plagued the Orange early in 2012 – short yardage and the goal line. To cap the team's first drive, Moore powered through everyone into the end zone on his first tote of the year. More impressively, he helped to run out the clock in the game's waning moments with an explosive burst through a Pitt linebacker before picking up the game's last first down. The "tank" package, as it was referred to, featured AAM at tailback and linebacker Lewellyn Coker at the fullback spot. Look for more of that going forward.
On the outside, things looked status quo for the Orange. Marcus Sales was effective on intermediate routes, but again had a big drop that would have extended a drive. While the numbers are gaudy compared to expectations and precedent for him, Sales has yet to take that next step and become a great wideout. Fellow veteran Alec Lemon continues to inch closer towards that goal, however, as he looks better and better each time out. With time to heal his wounds and get back into rhythm, the senior looks to be on the cusp of last year's expectation. The only knock on him was during a third-and-short when he hesitated out of his break on a slant pattern – allowing the defender to break up Nassib's pass. Jarrod West and Chris Clark had minimal chances in this one with the third down conversion rate so poor (5 for 14), but each made the most of it. West corralled a dazzling fourth-down pass to help extend a drive after running a solid deep comeback route. Clark made a tough catch in traffic, but could not bust loose on a bubble screen later on.
The tight end position was a non-factor in this one, as not a single pass headed their way and the running game was accelerated with five-man lines more times than not.
Up front, the offensive line put on their best show of 2012. With Justin Pugh back to solidify the left tackle spot, Sean Hickey slid to t right tackle and Rob Trudo manned the right guard spot all night. It wasn't perfect, but the run blocking was above-average and the pass blocking protected Nassib just about every time he attempted a pass. Pugh showed a bit of rust, but his talent enabled him to push through the night nearly unscathed. The only negative that was clearly visible on tape was when he was beat inside on a stretch running play, allowing his defender to take down the runner for a loss. Zack Chibane continued his excellent season, getting to the second-level on routine to help spring Smith and Gulley. Macky MacPherson was blown-bye on a third down play on one occasion, but held up against stout Pitt tackles more times than not. The same surprisingly went for Trudo. Often one of the weaker cogs up front, he pulled his weight with superb run blocks to spring Smith on his game-high 19-yard run as well as others. Trudo did yield a sack and an additional pressure as a pass-blocker, but showed more consistency than he has to this point. The most exciting play he participated was one of the game clinching carries by Ameen-Moore, when Trudo pushed the pile towards the game's clinching first down to fire up the Carrier Dome crowd as well as his teammates. Hickey held up, as expected, save for giving up a tackle for loss on another running play.
The offense moved the ball well as it has for most of the year, but third down deficiency prevented the Orange from putting up points on any drive but its first and the end zone interception.
While offense frustrated the home fans at times, the defense simply delivered. When it had to get a stop, it did. When it had to create a turnover, it did. It even scored…
Who would have thought the game-winning touchdown would not only come in the first quarter on Friday, but would be scored by a defense that had taken the ball away from the opponent just four times in four games heading into the Big East opener?
The play, of course, was a combination of things. First, the defensive line forced Tino Sunseri to get rid of the ball before he wanted to – causing the ball to sail a bit on him. The pass was in front of the wideout, who made an impressive one-handed catch . Jeremi Wilkes, who was in man coverage, tracked him down and stripped the ball as soon as it was corralled by two hands. Dyshawn Davis then scooped the ball and used a convoy to help him rumble 52 yards to pay dirt.
The score was a team effort and so was the defense's domination of the game.
It usually starts with the defensive line, and in this one it was no different. Jay Bromley was an absolute force inside all game long, living in the Panthers' backfield on routine. He epitomized what an interior lineman should hope to do at any level by creating a push on nearly every play, even disengaging and making tackles for loss on top of it. The senior was the catalyst for the tone the Orange set, and defensive end Brandon Sharpe was the assassin. When the defense needed it most, Sharpe came up with big play after big play. His gaudy four-sack night was capped with a play that not only ended a drive, but kicked Sunseri and Pitt out of field goal range – something not so small in a 14-13 win. Sharpe did it with speed, he did it with elite bend and he did it with power on the way to earning national recognition for his play as Big East Defensive Player of the Week as well as FWAA/Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week honors.
He wasn't alone, as Markus Pierce-Brewster and Eric Crume also had fantastic nights. MPB added pressure along with Sharpe, but he was stouter against the run than he previously showed. The junior defeated cut blocks without losing out on his responsibility and got in on tackles behind the line. Crume was a bit anxious out of the gate while over pursuing the run, but he settled down and paired well with Bromley against the center and guards. Deon Goggins was up-and-down, creating a solid push more time than not, while also racking up a bonehead roughing the passer penalty and getting blocked down to help spring a running back, which led to a first down. Rob Welsh provided some energy as well, though fellow reserve Micah Robinson was a bit lost – especially while losing contain on Ray Graham.
With the defensive line firing on all cylinders, the linebackers had clear paths to the ball carriers. The combination of Graham, Rushel Shell and Isaac Bennett managed just 60 yards for what is considered a very good Pitt rushing attack. Siriki Diabate again proved why he is the man in the middle for this defense, providing excellent fills and explosive hits against the run. He still was a bit off in coverage, but not to the point where changes need to be made. Davis was effective on the outside, especially as an additional rusher on passing downs. When he wasn't pestering the QB with Sharpe and/or MPB, he helped out in the run game. He did miss Graham in the hole 1-on-1, but many players do. Marquis Spruill held his own on the strong side, Cam Lynch proved effective as a blitzer and Dan Vaughan continues to serve in a reduced role.
The defensive backfield continued its above-average play. The safety position is becoming a four-player rotation with Shamarko Thomas and Wilkes as starters and Durrel Eskridge and Ritchy Desir serving in passing situations. Thomas, who was in injured late in the game, did his usual thing in the box – helping out on the run with steady support and explosive hits. Wilkes continues to prove that he is the second-best tackler in the group (behind Thomas), and he made the play of the game on that forced fumble that was returned for a score. Coverage it still iffy with him, as he was beat for a pair of first downs. Desir and Eskridge played it safe while in the field of play, keeping everything in front of them before coming up and making impressive open-field stops. The position is getting deeper by the week. The same cannot be said at cornerback, where it's still a three-man show. Keon Lyn was solid in coverage and much better in run support than he has shown in the past. His physical nature at the line of scrimmage stymied Pitt wideouts. On the other side, Ri'Shard Anderson continued to play off coverage and allow mediocre QBs to look pretty good. While on Devin Street more times than not, he was unable to settle his hips to properly break on the ball before missing several tackles. Maybe it's time for Brandon Reddish, who made one of the biggest plays on a corner blitz for a sack, to see more playing time opposite Lyn. Reddish seems to progress each time he's given the chance, while Anderson treads water.
The third phase of football mirrored the most popular on Friday, as it had a nice few moments before some question marks arose. Like the offense, things were promising early on. Jonathan Fisher was booming punts on his first few tries. Then his average plummeted before he shanked the last two tries. On the flip side, Steve Rene continues to make questionable decisions. He nearly cost the team 30 yards of field position by fielding a kickoff headed for the sidelines – something he has already done in 2012. He did look better as a returner, though, breaking the occasional tackle.
Syracuse looked solid in two of three phases on Friday, but the defense was superb. This team has yet to put it all together yet, but kicking off conference play with a win was a must for the Orange and it got it done. Ryan Nassib has been making good decisions with the football, the running game is on the upswing and the offensive line is finally looking like a unit. The defense looks as good as it has all season over the last two games, and it will need to be stout against the run going forward in a running-heavy Big East. The secondary remains one-sided, yet rarely tested. Which young player will ascend? Reddish, Desir, Eskridge or a combination? We should find out sooner than later.
The conference is wide open and the "undefeated" mentality Syracuse went into the Pitt game with helped lead to a win.
Next Up: Syracuse travels to Rutgers looking to avenge last season's overtime defeat