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Syracuse Game Preview

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One final look before the Syracuse game tomorrow. To be honest, for the first time in a while, I'm not overly concerned about this game. I think Pitt will come out strong and believe them when they say they're not looking past the Orange. Paul Zeise seems to believe it, too, answering this question in his weekly chat:
Frankie_CigsPack: I know the players have to say they are not looking ahead to Notre Dame, but what is the attitude of the team really like this week? They have to be looking ahead ... right?

Paul Zeise: No, they seem to be pretty focused to be honest. I think they sense they have a chance to do something special this year and they are really going to go after it one week at a time. If they are looking past Syracuse they are crazy because it isn't like they've been able to blow the Orange out the past few years. This will be a tough game.

Bill Stull sums it up pretty well:
"We lose this game," he said, "and our dreams are gone. All the hard work, it's almost like it was worth nothing."

Coach Wannstedt has been saying all the right things this week:
"Pitt had a long streak when they didn't beat Syracuse," Wannstedt said. "Syracuse is one of those programs with great tradition, great academics. They can go around the country and recruit. Last year we were down by 11 in the fourth quarter. The year before it was 10-10 halfway through the fourth quarter.

"It's a conference game and it's Pitt-Syracuse. And we better be ready to play better than we have."

But unlike a certain coach from central Pennsylvania, Wannstedt actually has good reason to show concern. In five of the past six seasons, Pitt has won by ten points or fewer each time. For some reason, the games with Syracuse for the most part are always uber competitive. Throw in the fact that Syracuse has been markedly better this year and you have, perhaps, a recipe for disaster.

One thing that continues to baffle me is the WWE-like turn on Greg Paulus by the Syracuse fans last week in the Cincinnati game. I understand that he didn't play well, but with the exception of a five-interception disaster against South Florida, he's played reasonably well, completing 65% of his passes this year. And let's not forget that last I checked, Cincinnati was a pretty good team. For Syracuse to have a chance this week, Paulus will need to limit the interceptions and let the defense try to keep it close.

And speaking of baffling, how did Syracuse end up with 8 of its 12 games at home (including 7 of their first 8)? I'm sure there's a reason for it, but frankly, I don't care to find out.

This week, the key matchup to look for in this game may be the Dion Lewis vs. the Orange run defense, which ranks 7th in the country and 1st in the Big East. They've got a pretty impressive resume:

• The Orange limited Penn State's Evan Royster to a season-low 41 yards on 12 carries and held the Nittany Lions to only 78 rushing yards, their worst showing of the season.

• They held Northwestern to a season-low 52 yards on 28 carries.

• They stopped Akron for zero yards on 24 carries, the best effort by a Syracuse defense in 18 years.

First-year coach Doug Marrone's team has not allowed a 100-yard rusher this year, and they are one of only two teams to hold West Virginia star Noel Devine under 100 yards.

Starting safeties Max Suter, a Greensburg Central Catholic graduate, and Mike Holmes are aggressive run-stoppers, and the Orange excel at taking away long runs. Opponents have 258 rushing attempts against Syracuse this year, and only five of those rushes gained 20-plus yards. The longest run all year against the Orange is 33 yards.

33 yards? That's kind of scary. But the good news for Pitt is that the passing defense has struggled, coming in close to last at 117th out of 120 teams. Ouch.

Quick Hitters -

Dave Wannstedt and Dion Lewis are up for Maxwell Awards. Lewis probably has no real shot to win, but I think Wannstedt could if Pitt runs the table.

Mike Shanahan has given Pitt another option at WR.

One of the focal points during the bye week seems to be ensuring the passing game doesn't miss a beat.

All season, it's started with the offensive line.

As I mentioned in my Q&A with the Syrcause blog Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician, I think the players realize that this could be a very special season. The NC State game was a good example of what happens when focus is lost. While I think they can't help but to look ahead to the Notre Dame game and rest of the season, I don't think it will affect the outcome of this one. The games against Syracuse have been close for the most part, but this looks like Pitt's best team in recent years. I do have some concern about Pitt getting an early lead and then turning complacent, but overall, expect a good win.

Prediction: Pitt 31 / Syracuse 13