PITTSBURGH (AP) - Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi isn’t exactly thrilled the Panthers cracked the rankings following a 55-0 dismissal of Austin Peay in their season opener. Even in a year as strange as 2020, it carries significance. It also means, in some small way, that No. 25 Pitt goes from the hunter to the hunted when it hosts longtime rival Syracuse on Saturday.
“I’d rather be disrespected, play with a grudge, chip on our shoulder,” Narduzzi said. “We know what kind of football team we have in here. It doesn’t matter what people think on the outside. It’s what we do on the field.”
Strip away the emptiness inside Heinz Field and the fact the Panthers (1-0) were playing a physically overmatched rival on short notice, what the Panthers did on the field against the Governors was impressive. The first shutout in six years. A dominant first half in which Pitt reached the end zone on six straight possessions. A defense that limited Austin Peay to a single yard rushing.
The Orange (0-1, 0-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) represent a significant step up in class. Syracuse played No. 12 North Carolina tough for three quarters before slipping late in a 31-6 loss. The 3-3-5 defense installed by new defensive coordinator Tony White produced three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble recovery) to give the offense a chance. Three fourth-quarter touchdowns by the Tar Heels made the final score look like the blow out it wasn’t.
“I just thought that the defense was out there too long,” Syracuse head coach Dino Babers said. “They were playing extremely well and let’s give them something to play for. Let’s get them some points on our side of the scoreboard and make sure that it’s a contest. We left some plays out there. We’ve got to make some of those plays to take the heat off.”
The Panthers sat out seven players against Austin Peay as part of the school’s COVID 19-related protocols. Narduzzi declined to disclose whether the players, who are required to undergo a 10-day quarantine, will be available against the Orange. He’s also wary of who else might not be in uniform if a player tests positive on the eve of the game.
“There’s nothing I can control unless they come sleep in my house,” he said. Things happen, you don’t know how they happen. But like I said, this building is safe. I feel good when they’re here. I can’t babysit them every minute of the day.”
Pitt tied SMU for the national lead in sacks per game last season (3.92), notching 51, and Syracuse finished 128th in the country for sacks allowed (50). That dubious trend for the Orange’s beleaguered front line continued last week on the road when Orange QB Tommy DeVito was sacked seven times by North Carolina. Pitt had a season-high nine sacks last year at Syracuse, its highest single-game total since October 2001. Syracuse defensive lineman/tight end Chris Elmore has been switched to guard because of depth concerns and Babers said he played well in the opener.
SPREADING IT AROUND
Pitt’s offense underperformed in 2019, as the adjustment to new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple’s pass-heavy system produced a fair amount of yards (39th nationally), but not a fair amount of points (114th).
Senior quarterback Kenny Pickett looked plenty comfortable against the Governors while averaging 19 yards per completion. Ten different Panthers caught passes, and that was with Taysir Mack, Tre Tipton and Jared Wayne all sitting out. Narduzzi was pleased with what he saw among the replacements, though he’d like to see his young receiver corps be a little invested in helping out the running game too.
“They got to do a better job blocking in the run game so we can have some explosives in the run game,” Narduzzi said. “Those guys did a great job out there.”
Syracuse All-America defender Andre Cisco has moved from safety to rover following the switch in defensive alignments. It doesn’t seem to matter where Cisco is because he has a nose for the ball. He intercepted North Carolina QB Sam Howell last week to boost his career total to 13, tops among active FBS players, and enters Saturday’s game with an interception in four straight games. Pitt QB Kenny
Pickett had only nine interceptions in 469 pass attempts last year.
AP Sports Writer John Kekis in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.
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