Had a chance to chat with John Cassillo of SB Nation’s Syracuse blog, Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician. Check out my questions to him below as well as his responses.
I also answered some questions on the Pitt end over on their site, which you can find here. Stop on over and take a look.
CH: Wide receiver Steve Ishmael is one of the top wide receivers in the country, leading the nation in catches with 51 (not a typo, for my readers) already and is second in yardage with 632. He's had wildly impressive games, even against Syracuse's tougher opponents in LSU and North Carolina State. Up against Pitt's shaky pass defense, he's obviously going to be the focal point Saturday, right?
John: NC State focused in on him early last Saturday, and that just ended up creating an opening for Ervin Philips to break the ACC's single-game receptions record. While Philips is our most dangerous threat underneath due to his speed, Ishmael's still your guy to watch, but in all parts of the field. He picks up a lot of his catches on screens, then makes things happen after the catch. His best asset is his downfield ability, however. It seems like each week, he adds another highlight-worthy catch going up and over the defender along the sideline. If Eric Dungey finds a weak spot in the Pitt secondary, they're going to try and exploit that all day.
What was the mindset of fans after dropping the game to Middle Tennessee back in Week 2? A large group of Pitt fans basically wrote the Panthers off after big losses to Penn State and Oklahoma State and, even though the opponents were different in terms of talent, I'm wondering if Syracuse fans did the same after that one.
Fans were pretty panicked, since it was one of a handful of (fairly) winnable games on the schedule, and the offense was completely handcuffed by former head coach Scott Shafer's defense. Some of that negativity has stuck around since, especially because we've gone 1-2 in the aftermath, with two close losses to better teams. Our fans are sick of losing, so any defeat is going to get most of us irate. But losing to Shafer and seeing the offense struggle added an extra bit of salt. Most fans have already told themselves we're still another year away from the postseason.
Pitt fans are obviously concerned about quarterback Eric Dungey and what he can under center. What kind of pro prospects do you see for him as well as Ishmael down the road?
Dungey's tough to peg as a pro. He's bigger and can make great downfield throws on the run, but his running ability is both his greatest asset and largest concern for scouts. So far, Dungey has avoided the sort of season-ending hits he's suffered in previous seasons, and I think that's helped both him and this offense. He's not always consistent, which will concern evaluators. However, he has accuracy and some game-changing ability that will at least get him a few looks at the end of his senior season.
As for Ishmael, I think he's one of a few players on the current roster capable of playing on Sundays. Like Dungey, consistency is an issue for him too sometimes. But he's a fantastic route-runner and downfield blocker, which are not skillsets you'll find in every wide receiver prospect. He makes up for his lack of great speed or amazing hands with that route-running and leaping ability. I could see him going in a later round.
Syracuse has had three rough seasons in a row, topping out at four wins over that stretch. Is the hope that things are starting to turn around?
Yeah, we figured Dino Babers's arrival last year would result in a bit of a reset. But the young pieces on the roster he inherited have progressed over time. This year, we're still not winning games at the clip we'd like. However, the defense is much-improved and the scoring margins are much tighter. It's no stretch to imagine the Orange at 4-1 or 5-0 right now, which provides hope but also maddening depression depending on your perspective. If the offense can pull together a complete game, we'll feel much more settled.
Defensively, who are the guys to watch for Syracuse this weekend?
Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett wreak havoc at linebacker, and have been key components of a resurgent push up front. You'll find both in the backfield plenty, but they've also proven themselves capable of playing in coverage. They're our leading tacklers on the team, just as they were last year as well.
The name that's quietly made a major impact this year is (redshirt) sophomore cornerback Christoper Fredrick. He got a shot to contribute last year due to injuries, then won the starting job for 2017. He'll get beat here and there, but overall, he's our best shutdown defender in coverage. Last week, NC State had zero catches against him in five targets, and he also recorded two pass break-ups. It seems like he's getting better each and every week.
How do you see Saturday's game playing out?
Both teams understand their season's largely at stake, so should come out firing at the Dome. Still, I think Syracuse looks like it's a bit further along on both sides of the ball and should manage the win. Expect Dungey to throw plenty, and for the defense to try and keep Max Browne uneasy at quarterback. I'd expect the Orange to be up a little at half, then blow it open in the third quarter for a two-score victory. Score should be something like 35-20, with SU taking full advantage of a struggling Pitt pass defense. Hopefully that doesn't sound overconfident. If Syracuse makes the sorts of mistakes they have against better teams this year, the game will easily turn into a similar contest to last year's scoring spree.