No. 22 Syracuse’s impending showdown with Pittsburgh has a completely different outlook than it did just a few days ago. After a 41-24 drubbing at the hands of Notre Dame, this game isn’t as “gimme” for the Orange as we thought it might be. Not to mention injuries are piling up like wrapping paper on Christmas morning. Additionally, SU hasn’t emerged victorious at now Acrisure Stadium (formerly Heinz Field, yes it sounds weird to us too) since 2001. The odds are already stacked against Syracuse, now let’s see what its opponent does to affect those odds.
2022 has been a step back for the Panthers, but when you lose your third-place Heisman-finishing QB Kenny Pickett and your Biletnikoff-Award-Winning WR Jordan Addison, it’s an understandable step back. The reigning ACC champs have had a mixed bag of performances this season. Pitt took Tennessee, a team many see as the best in the nation, to overtime back on September 10. Despite the loss, you can’t deny that that’s no small feat. But just a few weeks later, the Panthers lost at home to Georgia Tech, which had just fired its head coach. Head-scratching is an understatement. Pitt is 4-4 this season but certainly plays better than a .500 team at its best.
HEAD COACH PAT NARDUZZI
A former college linebacker, Narduzzi has never led a Pitt team off the rails as Head Coach. The worst record the Panthers have had in the New Haven, CT native’s tenure is 5-7 back in 2017. That also happens to be the only year in which a Narduzzi-led Pitt team has lost to Syracuse. The Panthers are 6-1 against the Orange in Narduzzi’s tenure. Under him, Pitt has been to two ACC title games (winning one) and has qualified for a bowl six times (including the Peach Bowl last season). Panthers fans have been spoiled with how consistent their team has been under Narduzzi for the most part.
QB KEDON SLOVIS
As mentioned above, replacing Pickett is no small feat. After all, he was drafted in the first round of last April’s draft. Slovis has been good but not great as the heir to Pickett’s throne. A three-year starter at USC previously, Slovis has over 1500 yards passing while throwing both 5 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. The Scottsdale, AZ native certainly hasn’t been wetting the bed, but he also hasn’t been making highlight reel plays like Pickett used to. But there is a reason why Slovis doesn’t need to play like Pickett.
RB ISRAEL ABANIKANDA
This is that reason. Abanikanda is a workhorse on the ground, and all you need to do is look at the game logs to find out why. The Brooklyn native racked up 320 yards and 6 touchdowns in a single game just a few weeks ago. Over 1,000 yards on the season. 17 total touchdowns. And the Panthers are only eight games in. We saw Notre Dame’s rushing attack tear Syracuse to shreds this past weekend. None of those halfbacks are as lethal as Abanikanda. Tony White’s unit has some work to do.
LB SIRVOCEA DENNIS
This game means a little more for Dennis than for his teammates. The senior played quarterback and defensive back at Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse. SU had an interest in the potential hometown product. Nonetheless, Dennis opted to join the Panthers, and he has been a difference-maker. He’s the team leader in both tackles and sacks and is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss. Regardless of who ends up starting at QB for the Orange this weekend, Dennis will be looking to wreak havoc.
DB ERICK HALLETT II
Hallett has done a little bit of everything for Pitt this year. The Cypress, TX native leads the Panthers in interceptions and fumble recoveries, is second in pass breakups, and leads all defensive backs on the team in tackles for loss. Hallett also forced a fumble when he played at the Dome last season. Mr. Do-It-All. Interceptions have been an unwelcome problem for SU in its past few games, Hallett can make that problem a little bit worse at the blink of an eye.
While this isn’t the Pitt team of last year, it’s still a very dangerous one. One that has given Dino Babers fits in his time on the hill. The vibes around Syracuse are trending in the wrong direction, and it won’t exactly be easy to reverse the ship.