Had some time this week to put together a brief Q&A in advance of the Pitt-Syracuse game. Answering my questions was John Cassillo over at SB Nation's Syracuse site, Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician.
They'll also be running my answers to their questions as well.
Syracuse will likely be missing quarterback Eric Dungey on Saturday. What can you tell us about backup Zack Mahoney?
Mahoney was brought in last year as a walk-on who fit really well into (former offensive coordinator) Tim Lester's option-based attack. This year, we're a more pass-focused team and the transition hasn't gone incredibly well for him. He's still our best option beyond Dungey. But his strength is running the football, not throwing it. So the offense has struggled with him at the helm. He'll hit an open man downfield now and again, but if this team is going to move the ball, it'll have to be via short screens and quarterback runs.
Amba Etta-Tawo has not only been the best receiver in the league but one of the best in the country. Prior to this season, he'd only been a modest contributor. What has been the change that's flipped the switch for him?
The system, really. Maryland (where he came from) underutilized him and had their own offensive issues with the previous regime. Here, he's able to put his size, speed and great hands to use and just run. As the team's top deep receiving option, he's regularly put in single coverage against smaller defensive backs, and he takes full advantage of the mismatch. He's a great route-runner, and has versatility, too. If you start giving him a cushion to avoid getting beat deep, he'll just catch screens on you all day instead.
Syracuse's defense has struggled against the run and the pass this year. But who are some of the key guys on that unit that fans should be watching for?
Yeah, the transition from the old, blitz-focused scheme to a coverage-focused Tampa-2 has not gone well -- and has been made worse by a rash of injuries and minimal depth in both the front and back. Still, there are some players who have thrived this year, especially along the back seven. Daivon Ellison and Christopher Frederick started the year on the bench, but due to injuries, they've received a ton of playing time and are now among our best performers in the secondary.
Defensive captain Zaire Franklin has found various ways to impact the game from the middle linebacker spot, and was the leader of a sort-of mid-year turnaround for this group. We'll see if he ends up playing in this one, however. He left last week's FSU loss with an injury.
The Orange pulled off a big upset over Virginia Tech, a team that Pitt couldn't beat. What did they do in that game that led to the win?
The defense was able to generate pressure (not common this year), and the offense was able to minimize mistakes and force Tech to operate at their speed for much of the game. The Hokies are implementing some tempo this year, but it's still not at the same speed as Syracuse at full strength. SU was able to score early and dictate the pace, forcing Virginia Tech into a one-dimensional passing game that didn't suit their personnel well. For once, the Orange were also able to cut down on mistakes, which have plagued the team for much of the year.
What are the expectations for the Orange in Year 2 under Dino Babers? Babers' head coaching experience has been limited but at each of his last two stops, his teams have excelled in the second season under his watch.
The schedule is a bear again next year, but there are high hopes for what this team can do in year two under Babers. There's been noticeable improvement on both sides of the ball, and without the wide-ranging collection of injuries, you would've noticed more wins coming with this year's improvement too. A healthy Dungey and offensive line, plus a more-experienced secondary should yield better results (like six or seven wins) in Babers's second year.
Give us a prediction for this weekend's game.
Injuries were a theme above, and they will be in this game as well. Syracuse is too banged up in the trenches to stop Pitt's run game or prevent the Panthers' pass rush. With the quarterback position failing to be much of a spark either, the Orange simply don't have the ability to keep up with what should be a strong ground attack for Pitt. Hate to see SU squander a chance to sneak into the postseason via APR score, but it's too much of a stretch to predict a win. Pitt 38, Syracuse 21