Pittsburgh (2-2) at Syracuse (1-3)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Friday, October 5, 7:00 p.m. (et)
FACTS & STATS: Site: Carrier Dome (49,250) -- Syracuse, New York. Television: ESPN. Home Record: Pittsburgh 2-1, Syracuse 1-1 Away Record: Pittsburgh 1-0, Syracuse 0-1. Neutral Record: Pittsburgh 0-0, Syracuse 0-1. Conference Record: Pittsburgh 0-1, Syracuse 0-0. Series Record: Pittsburgh leads 34-30-3.
GAME NOTES: One of the most storied rivalries in the Big East will have its last installment on Friday night when the Pittsburgh Panthers take a trip to the Carrier Dome to take on the Syracuse Orange.
Both the Orange and Panthers will jump ship to the ACC next year, where the rivalry will continue.
After opening the season 0-2, including a loss to FCS opponent Youngstown State, while being outscored 65-27, this season's outlook was bleak for Pittsburgh. Since those losses, the Panthers have been able to capture back to-back wins to salvage the early portion of the season. Pittsburgh is currently 0-1 in Big East play, taking a 34-10 loss to Cincinnati in early September.
Syracuse hasn't been able to pick up any traction yet this season, entering this matchup without a win versus an FBS school to go along with a 1-3 overall record. Syracuse's only win was a 28-17 victory over Stony Brook. The Orange are coming off a tough 19-17 road loss to Minnesota in their last outing. This also marks Syracuse's conference-opener. The Orange were just 1-6 in Big East play last season.
This has been an annual rivalry since 1955 and one that dates back all the way to 1916. In that time Pittsburgh has held the edge with a 34-30-3 mark. Pittsburgh's lead in the all-time series has come recently with the Panthers winning seven straight against the Orange, including a 33-20 victory in the regular-season finale a year ago.
In its last two games, Pittsburgh has seen its offense improve dramatically. The Panthers compiled 1,163 yards in those two wins and are now the third ranked team in terms of total offense (486.3 ypg) in the Big East. The Panthers are also second in the conference in scoring (29.3 ppg).
The play of quarterback Tino Sunseri has been an important piece of that offensive resurgence, with him completing 71 percent of his pass attempts for 627 yards and six touchdowns to just one interception in those two games. Overall Sunseri has thrown for 1,144 yards and eight touchdowns, while completing 67.2 percent of his pass attempts. Sunseri is currently third in the Big East in terms of passing yards.
The return to form of tailback Ray Graham has also been a driving force behind the offense's improvement. Graham is fifth in the conference in rushing (362 yards) despite playing in only four games. Rushel Shell (239 yards) has also been a solid alternative.
Mike Shanahan (21 receptions, 368 yards, 3 TDs) and Devin Street (18 receptions, 273 yards, 2 TDs) have been strong options for the Panthers and the only two players to have double digit reception totals. Shanahan is currently second in the conference in receiving yards.
The defensive unit has had modest results for Pittsburgh this season with the Panthers surrendering 23.0 points and 324.0 yards per game to rank fifth and fourth, respectively in the conference. The Panthers have also forced seven total turnovers this season, despite struggling to create much of a pass rush with only six total sacks.
Shane Gordon is the team leader in tackles (28), tackles for loss (four) and sacks (1.5), while Jason Hendricks has constantly made plays on the ball with three interceptions.
Picking up yards has not been an issue for Syracuse this season, which is currently the best team in the Big East in total offense (487.5 ypg). The Orange are a team that relies heavily on the pass, leading the conference in passing yards (1,367 yards). However, the Orange are second to last in the conference in rushing yards which has affected the team's red zone success and scoring ability at 27 points per contest (tied for fourth).
At the forefront has been the play of quarterback Ryan Nassib. The senior QB leads the Big East in passing yards (1,367) and touchdowns (10), while completing 66.3 percent of his pass attempts. He also leads the conference in attempts (178) and completions (118).
Marcus Sales has established himself as Nassib's favorite target. Sales has caught 27 passes for 382 yards and five touchdowns, all conference-highs. Sales is coming off his first game with fewer than 100 receiving yards, as he managed only a pair of receptions for 32 yards in the loss to Minnesota. Alec Lemon was instead the main pass catcher, with nine receptions for 106 yards, which more than doubled his season total (16 receptions, 170 yards).
Part of the reason Syracuse has not been able to collect more wins has been the poor play of its defense. The Orange are fifth in the conference in total defense (357.5 ypg) but are last in scoring defense (29.5 ppg). A big issue has been the team's inability to force teams to settle for field goals. In 12 red zone attempts against the Syracuse defense, opponents have scored nine touchdowns this season.
Dyshawn Davis is the team's leader in tackles (26) and tackles for loss (4.5) for a unit that has recorded nine sacks this season.
A season once thought to be lost suddenly has hope for Pittsburgh, which has looked much improved in the past two games. Syracuse desperately needs to start picking up wins if the Orange want to look more like the 2010 version than the 2011 one. Sunseri has shown that he can keep up with the best passers in the league and he'll get a chance to prove that against Nassib. If Pittsburgh can capitalize on its superiority in the run game, the Panthers will come out of the Dome with a win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Pittsburgh 27 Syracuse 24
10/03 10:39:55 ET