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Pitt football season feels like it's in the balance with a crucial game against Syracuse

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With Pitt's game against Rice now in the books, the Panthers now turn their attention fully to ACC play for the rest of the year. Safe to say, if the football team wants to do much of anything this season, this weekend's game against Syracuse looks like a must have.

Pitt is only 2-3 on the year but that's really where the team should be given the level of competition they've faced so far. It would have been nice to defeat Penn State, Oklahoma State, or Georgia Tech, but in reality, winning any of those would have been an upset. The first two teams mentioned there are ranked and the third is just outside of the Top 25, receiving many votes. The argument about Pitt's season, of course, is more the ugly fashion in which they lost those games.

This weekend's game is extremely important for Pitt if they have any aspirations of making noise in the Division and getting to a tenth straight bowl. No one will excuse the Panthers for not upsetting Virginia Tech or Miami but they need to win games like this one if they're going to get to .500 on the season.

Last year's game, of course, was the wild 76-61 shootout where neither side played much defense. Safe to say, if Syracuse scores even half of the points they did last season, Pitt will be hard-pressed to keep up.

Beating Syracuse has been pretty commonplace for Pitt. They've won 13 of the past 15 games and even one of those defeats was only by a single point. The games have sometimes been close but, for the most part, Pitt has dominated the series lately. Winning this one, however, won't be quite as easy.

Syracuse, like Pitt, has been difficult to read. They played reasonably well against LSU and North Carolina State on the road but also lost to Middle Tennessee. Against weaker competition, the offense was explosive, scoring 91 points against Central Connecticut and Central Michigan. They even scored points against LSU and North Carolina State, putting a combined 51 on the board. If they've shown anything, it's that they can score and that proves to be a big challenge for Pitt.

If you're looking for the biggest key to the game, similar to the Oklahoma State game, it's easily Syracuse's passing attack against the Pitt secondary. Gone is Amba Etta-Tawo, who had a monster game against Pitt with 178 receiving yards and (count them) five touchdown catches. But if you think the Orange's aerial attack is any less deadly, think again. Syracuse is 15th in the nation in passing and has two huge weapons. First, there's Steve Ishmael, who has already accumulated 51 catches. That leads the nation and his 632 yards are second. On a better team, he's easily a strong Heisman candidate.

The bad news for Pitt fans gets even worse, though. Syracuse also has Ervin Philips, who, with 44 catches and 420 receiving yards, is also on pace for a 1,000-yard season. Philips hasn't had quite the year that Ishmael has, but last week against North Carolina State, he proved teams can't forget about him. He had 17 catches (a Syracuse and ACC record) for 188 yards while Ishmael was being double teamed.

If Pitt is going to win, they'll need to stop those guys from having an Etta-Tawo-type of game.

The good news, if you're in need of some, is that Syracuse's running game has struggled, like Pitt's has. The Orange's leading rusher has been quarterback Eric Dungey and no one else even has more than 140 yards on the ground. That should hopefully allow the Panthers the opportunity to focus on the passing game. A big key will be pressuring Dungey and getting him to make some mistakes, which he does on occasion.

Another thing I like here is what we saw from Pitt's offense last week - and that's the ability to do things with Max Browne has time to throw. Browne did end up on his back four times last week after sacks, but still threw for more than 400 yards and completed nearly every pass. He's a statue back there and Syracuse will likely get to him a few times. But the good thing is that the Orange's pass rush hasn't been great. Through five games, Syracuse has only four sacks on the year and, like Pitt's group, is one of the worst in that regard in the nation (122nd out of 129 teams). If Pitt gets competent offensive line play, the offense can again have a nice day.

This is going to be a really telling game for Pitt because, even though fans aren't real happy, I still think we have no idea just what we have with this team. Pitt has faced either really good or really bad teams this season and while the results have been exceedingly bad against the better teams, I still think we have little idea of how good/bad the Panthers are this year. A game like this will serve as a nice benchmark.

If Pitt manages to win this one and look good, there's still some hope here. But if they lose, it's hard to imagine them doing much of anything the rest of the way. Syracuse's passing offense is better than that of most teams Pitt will face but beating the Orange is still something the Panthers need to do. At some point, the losses get harder to explain away.

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