Panthers pick themselves up from the mat
Before the game even started, Pittsburgh was in trouble. The Panthers won the toss and deferred, opting to give the Orange the ball out of the gate. Given the two units’ numbers — Syracuse leads the ACC in scoring offense and Pittsburgh ranks third from the bottom in scoring defense — it was a surprising choice from Pat Narduzzi, and it looked like it would backfire after SU slashed and burned on the opening drive: 11 plays, 75 yards, just over four minutes, and a touchdown.
The ‘Cuse ripped the ball back when Alton Robinson forced and Andrew Armstrong recovered a fumble on Pittsburgh’s first drive, setting up a short field and another touchdown. By the time most fans at Heinz Field had settled in, the Orange led, 14-0, but the Panthers soon flashed some explosiveness of their own.
Qadree Ollison — the Aaron Craft of Pittsburgh football, because it feels like he’s been there forever — rumbled 69 yards for his team’s first points of the afternoon less than a minute after Syracuse’s second score. Five plays into SU’s ensuing drive, a strip-and-score from the Pitt defense knotted the game, and a pair of 50-plus-yard bombs from Alex Kessman made it 20 straight points for the home team. Andre Szmyt drilled a field goal of his own to finally stop the bleeding and trim Pittsburgh’s lead to 20-17 heading into the locker room.
Youngbloods step up
Both of Syracuse’s touchdowns were firsts: tight end Aaron Hackett had never caught a pass for the Orange, and running back Jarveon Howard had never hit paydirt.
Hackett is playing partly out of necessity, with Ravian Pierce on the shelf indefinitely due to an upper-body injury. The sophomore from Florida told the Fizz during his recruiting process that he can help the team in a variety of ways.
“I think I am a kind of versatile player where I can line up and beat a linebacker or beat a safety in coverage,” Hackett said in August of 2016. “But I can also put my hand in the ground and help block for a running back or help create a seam so I think that’s what I bring to the table, being able to do a lot of things.”
As for Howard, it was only a matter of time before he snuck into the end zone: the true freshman came in with 187 yards on just 24 carries — a cool 7.8 a pop — but no touchdowns. When Howard committed in January, we weren’t sure how much playing time he’d see in his first season, especially considering that the two-headed monster of Moe Neal and Dontae Strickland in front of him owns plenty of experience.
By the way, I think most Syracuse fans would agree: they’d rather have Howard than Mychale Salahuddin, the four-star recruit who left the Orange at the altar in favor of Pittsburgh in February. Salahuddin has touched the ball twice all season, both on kickoff returns. Consider that a win for karma.
Who are you and what have you done with Eric Dungey?
Syracuse’s stud senior looked like himself on the opening drive, completing 6-of-7 passes for 42 yards and the touchdown. In the remainder of the first half, he went 6-for-18 for 16 yards and an interception.
Make no mistake about it: Dungey is one of the best quarterbacks in the country. With his floater to Hackett, he joined Donovan McNabb (77) and Ryan Nassib (70) as the only SU quarterbacks ever to throw at least 50 career touchdowns; throw in his 26 rushing scores — easily the most ever by an Orange signal-caller — and you realize we are watching a program legend pilot the offense.
Dungey must find a rhythm in the second half. Based on his track record, he will.