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Behind Enemy Lines at the ACC Kickoff: The SU Defense Through the Eyes of the Panthers

This is part of an ongoing series previewing SU’s 2021 Football Opponents.   

Our coverage of the 2021 ACC Kickoff continues today with Day 2 of the festivities. It gets real interesting this Thursday as Syracuse and the rest of the Atlantic Division take center stage. Before we dive into the annual opponents ‘Cuse plays in its alignment within the Atlantic Coast Conference, let’s focus on Pittsburgh.  

This is a rivalry series that hasn’t favored the Orange in recent history as the Panthers have won each of the last three meetings and seven of the last eight. For more general info on Pitt and some of their key players head over to my colleague Matt Bonaparte’s article

This piece is meant to delve into a Syracuse related storyline and well it’s not very hard to find one. It’s quite simple really, how can SU end the Panthers’ domination in this series in the past decade? The answer has to be with its defense

SU surprised many last year when its defensive unit was more impressive than its offensive counterpart. It’s strange because the offense had far less turnover in terms of player personnel, coaching, and scheme change. Despite new coordinator Tony White installing the 3-3-5 without spring ball and all the injuries in the unit, the defense was the bright spot of SU’s 2020 team. 

Syracuse fans may remember the 76-61 madness from the 2016 meeting. It seems like those days of ‘Cuse Football are long gone because well SU isn’t giving up 76 points and the offense might score 61, but not in one single game. 

The key to beating this Pitt team is to match up with them on the defensive end and force turnovers. The Orange formulated that blueprint in last year’s 21-10 loss at the hands of Pat Narduzzi and Company. 

Despite taking the loss in just the second game of the season, the SU defense allowed just 342 total yards and forced a pair of turnovers. This was just another exhibit in a scrapbook of contests in which the defense kept the Orange in the game, but the offense simply couldn’t score. Many believe the Syracuse offense can only improve this season so if White’s bunch can continue to play competitive ball, the ‘Cuse have a puncher’s chance in every contest. 

The offense is another story for another time and let’s be real, this SU defense will definitely have its hands full when it begins to gameplan for Pittsburgh. The Panthers return fifth-year quarterback Kenny Pickett and 2020 freshman All-American wide receiver Jordan Addison. The two are dangerous when paired together and the passing game is only getting more dangerous under third year offensive coordinator Mark Whipple.  

Narduzzi is known as a defensive guru as he was the former defensive coordinator at Michigan State under Mark Dantonio. Although he takes pride in preventing offenses from reaching the end zone, he understands that today’s game is very scoring oriented. 

“When you talk about college football nowadays you got to score points… When you get your running game going great things can happen. We can’t drop back with any quarterback, you can give us Dan Marino back but if Dan’s gonna drop back every snap and throw the ball you’re gonna have issues.

When the run game gets going you’re going to see a lot more explosive plays. Not a seven or eight yard pass completion, you’re gonna see a 78 yard pass completion. Those are the ones we like to have, Kenny would like to have just one throw and have a nice fresh arm.” 

 

One of the offensive weapons that figures to be on the receiving end of those 78 yard pass completions is Addison. The Maryland native broke out in 2020 with 60 receptions for 666 yards and four scores. The former four-star recruit also added nine rushes for 58 yards. Addison had a decent game against the Orange with a seven catch, 57 yard, and one touchdown performance as well as three runs for 24 yards. The prolific playmaker remembers SU’s defensive backs and the difficulty they presented him on the outside. 

“They (SU) had a lot of kinda tall, lanky defensive backs so it was kind of a challenge to get around and beat their defenders.” 

If you don’t have enough reasons to buy tickets for Syracuse and Pitt on November 27th, the season finale, here’s one. The matchup between Addison and Garrett Williams: Freshman All-American against Freshman All-American. The Panthers top wideout remembers the Orange’s top corner specifically and the talent that Williams is.

“He’s a really good defender and I’m looking forward to that challenge because I know he’s perfecting his craft just like I am so I can’t wait until we meet up.” 

Addison continued to detail his scouting process when it comes to preparing for a game and what small details he looks for when scouting corners. 

“When I’m watching my defenders I’m looking to see if they’re playing inside leverage or outside leverage and what they like to do so I can make my move off them.” 

 

Williams if you’re reading this you now have Addison’s secret. Just kidding, one small sentence won’t slow down the incredible talent that he is. The key to Syracuse beating Pittsburgh might lie in winning this matchup between Williams and Addison. 

As a 3-3-5 defense, SU presents a unique challenge to Pickett as well and his responsibilities under center. Unfortunately, for the Orange this contest comes in the final game of the regular season as opposed to last season’s early bout in game two. Pickett believes the Panthers lucked out having the contest against SU in the back half of their schedule. 

“It’s an odd front team, usually we’re more familiar with four down (lineman) teams so in terms of preparation and set protections and all that stuff it adds an extra element so I don’t know how many 3-3-5 teams we play and obviously they’re one of them and they’re at the back end so hopefully we have some experience heading into that one.” 

 

No matter when SU and Pitt hit the gridiron, White’s defensive scheme will always cause opposing offensive coordinators some headache. If the Orange can get pressure, force turnovers, and score off the takeaways, they’ll have every opportunity to end the three game losing skid to their northern foes.  

Syracuse and Pittsburgh are set to clash on November 27th in the Dome on senior night.  

Make sure to check out our content hub where you can find all of the Fizz’s coverage from the ACC Media Kickoff.

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The Fizz is owned, edited and operated by Damon Amendolara. D.A. is an ’01 Syracuse graduate from the Newhouse School with a degree in Broadcast Journalism.

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