Pittsburgh game Preview

Syracuse meets Pitt in a battle of teams with something to prove.

Two of the Big East's most disappointing programs thus far in 2008 tangle on the gridiron when the Pittsburgh Panthers visit the Carrier Dome tomorrow. Pittsburgh began the season on the fringe of the top 25, but promptly lost to Bowling Green, 27-17, to begin the season. Led by the dangerous 1-2 running back combo of LeSean McCoy and LaRod Stephens-Howling, the Panthers have rebounded, winning two close non-conference contests. However, with a margin of victory of just twelve points for these two games, many naysayers still say Pittsburgh is vastly overrated and has no business being mentioned in the Big East conversation.

And as for their opponent this week, the Orange, well we all know about the problems surrounding the team and athletic program. SU's victory over Northeastern last weekend marked just the eighth in three-plus years under head coach Greg Robinson. Rumors are abundant as to who the next man to take the helm at the once-illustrious football power will be. Fans are disgruntled, and rightfully so; message boards have been flooded with new coaching candidates for over a year and if Robinson is unable to get more wins, athletic director Dr. Daryl Gross recently indicated that he may soon get the axe.

Despite all these problems, both teams have a clean slate entering Big East play. While it's not very likely, one of these two teams could turn around its season and make a run at the BCS autobid. Everyone has high expectations for the season, including SU senior Bruce Williams who says, "we haven't played a Big East game yet. If you look at the conference, it's up and down right now; no one is really taking control. We know we can spoil a lot of people's plans and that's what we're going to aim to do."

If the Orange intends to play spoiler, it will certainly need to get lots of big plays from Williams and his mates in the secondary. This is the same defense that surrendered nearly three hundred yards of passing just a week ago to FBS foe Northeastern. Williams and Randy McKinnon do give hope, but how competitive this game is may rest solely on the shoulders of Mike Holmes. He has not played well so far, looking lost on more than his fair share of plays. And one would think that he might see a fair share of passes thrown his way this week if Syracuse decides to stack the box to slow down Pitt's vaunted rushing attack. Pittsburgh's offense should have its way with the Orange defense and leave them gasping for air on the field for yet another long Saturday afternoon. The inability of the linebacking corps to tackle consistently will give McCoy and Stephens-Howling plenty of holes to exploit.

On offense, the Orange actually looked like a crisp and precise unit at times last weekend. While the Panthers lost starting linebacker Adam Gunn in the opening game of the season, their defense will surely provide a sterner test than the Huskies. To have success, Syracuse needs to again work on establishing the running game. Curtis Brinkley and Doug Hogue are running with a purpose. Pitt will likely put eight in the box and force Cam Dantley to beat them. Marcus Sales and Donte Davis played well last week, but mostly as blockers, seeing as they combined for just three receptions. The play calling must enable Dantley to make some short passes to these athletes and let them make moves on defenders. I've long ago given up on the notion that we'll see much successful play action and downfield passing at Syracuse in the next decade, so we're left to hope that SU can get the ball first and get the fans into the game.

Keys to the game for Syracuse will be: winning the battle at the line of scrimmage, pressuring Bill Stull (Panthers QB), getting multiple turnovers on defense and limiting the penalties. The Orange will have the deck stacked against them, but if you're looking again for some distant source of optimism, you might have to look beyond the football field. Bob Costas made another visit to SU this week to talk to students. When he did so last year, the Syracuse football team responded by upsetting Louisville on the following weekend. This, unfortunately, did not work out so well with Mike Tirico and the Penn State game earlier this year. So maybe it's just the Costas magic that SU needs.

Anyhow, the Xs and Os of this game point to it being another long day on the home sidelines in the Dome. Pitt is hungry to prove itself to the rest of the conference and a road game against an inferior opponent is a good place to start. Expect the Panthers to jump ahead, scoring early and often. SU has the running backs to make a game of it if they can respond to Pitt's punches. But when Pitt takes a ten point lead at halftime, the Orange passing game will again fail them and leave writers and fans with more speculation and questions.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 34, Syracuse 17.

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