Last year, it was Syracuse wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo lighting up the scoreboard in the crazy 76-61 Pitt win. Etta-Tawo had 13 catches for 178 yards and a ridiculous (as if those other numbers weren’t nuts) five touchdown grabs.
The good news? He’s gone. The bad? The Orange have two guys this year that might be capable of producing video game scores on Saturday.
Steve Ishmael is the key and a familiar face. He’s a senior and, while he’s been productive in the past, he’s taken things to a whole different level with Etta-Tawo having moved on. Ishamel leads the nation in receptions with 51 and is second in yardage with 632. He’s been held out of the end zone for the most part with only two touchdown catches but is obviously a real threat.
Things don’t end there, however.
The Orange have another senior that’s familiar in Ervin Philips. Philips had a huge year last season with 90 catches that went for a somewhat down 822 yards. It’s clear he’s the guy to watch on a lot of shorter routes and seems to do what Tyler Boyd had done for Pitt towards the end of his career. Philips has 44 catches himself and is among the nation’s leaders up there with Ishmael. Like Ishmael, though, he’s also been kept out of the end zone with only two touchdown catches.
Expecting Pitt to stop both of those guys is asking too much. Last week, North Carolina State focused on Ishmael and Phillips had one of the biggest receiving days in school history and ACC history (breaking both records for catches with 17). It’s clear that if Pitt takes one away, at least one guy is going to put up some numbers.
The overwhelming thought I come away with here is that Pitt needs a bend-but-not-break defense this weekend. You hear that term overused (I mean, when is it not good to have that?) but I think it’s particular important this week.
Syracuse has been able to get both of those guys going this year and each has made a ton of catches. Ishmael, in particular, would probably be a legit Heisman candidate on a better team. You’d think that would translate to more victories but the Orange still find themselves only 2-3, including a loss to Middle Tennessee.
That doesn’t mean they’re a bad team necessarily. But it does mean that even with two guys producing so much in the aerial game, Syracuse still isn’t doing enough to win. Teams have allowed them to have big days and still managed to come out unscathed.
Some of that is because the Orange haven’t played a super easy schedule. They’ve had some cupcakes but have already played on the road at LSU and at North Carolina State. But some of it is because Syracuse just hasn’t been effective enough in other areas. As I mentioned in the preview, like Pitt, they’ve had a really tough time running the ball. Their 81st in the country there and that’s only because quarterback Eric Dungey does a lot of damage with his legs and leads the team in rushing. And while their defense has been okay, it hasn’t been completely lights out.
The bottom line here is that Pitt needs to keep those guys out of the end zone. Give up a 30-yard completion but don’t let it turn into a 50-yard score. Win the battles on third down. Syracuse will score points, don’t get me wrong. They average 33 a game, so they’re too good not to do that. But while Pitt might be able to handle 30 points, trying to handle 40 is probably going to be too difficult.
The Pitt offense just won’t be able to keep up too well if Syracuse easily finds the end zone. Best case scenario for Pitt here is to try to keep the Orange to 27 points. Maybe you give up three touchdowns but keep it from being five. Other teams have had success keeping those receivers out of the end zone and Pitt needs to do the same. They absolutely must hold Syracuse to some field goals to have a shot at winning this weekend.
It’s almost a given that Syracuse will do some damage in the air against the Panthers’ secondary. But if Pitt can avoid giving up the big touchdown passes that they did last year, that will go a long way to winning.