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Pitt heads into crucial matchup with Syracuse on Saturday

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Central Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

After another disappointing game on Saturday, Pitt will turn around to face Syracuse this weekend.

Looking at the game before the season started, it was hoped that this one could be penciled in as a win. Syracuse did beat the Panthers last year but Pitt also suffered its worst season in a decade and still lost by only three on the road. That Orange team, too, was not very good, finishing 4-8.

But if you were hoping for an easy game for the Panthers this weekend, think again. Syracuse comes in at 4-1 this year and is one of the surprises in, not only the conference, but probably all of college football. This weekend, they nearly upset No. 3 Clemson on the road, losing by four after the Tigers scored late in the game. Clemson was down to its third string quarterback but even figuring that in, that was an impressive showing.

Besides that game, Syracuse has looked beyond good. Their offense scored at least 30 points in every other game and topped 50 points three times. Their defense hasn’t been quite that good but has still more than held their own, giving up only seven points to Florida State and only ten to Wagner. They did give up 42 in the opener in somewhat of a head-scratcher against Western Michigan. But, aside from an ugly loss to Michigan, Western Michigan has scored a ton of points themselves.

With quarterback Eric Dungey, Syracuse’s passing offense is more than capable. But it’s in the running game where they’ve really done their damage. The Orange ranked No. 9 in the nation in rushing offense heading into this weekend and Dungey contributes there, too, as he’s the second-leading rusher on the team. Currently, they average 278 yards on the ground per game and a big part of stopping them is going to be limiting Dungey’s mobility.

For Pitt, a quirky fact here is that this is the fourth top ten rushing team they’ve faced already. The others were Georgia Tech, Penn State, and UCF. That’s an unbelievable stat, when you think about it. Pitt comes in ranking 35th going into this past weekend so the key factor could be which team is more effective at stopping the run. That’s not to say Pitt’s secondary won’t be under the microscope. I think that’s always going to be the case. But Pitt has actually given up fewer passing yards than Syracuse has this year so I think the running games are going to be where the focus is here.

This is going to be a crucial matchup for Pitt and, it’s safe to say that the season hangs in the balance here. At 2-3, Pitt still has games left against Notre Dame, Miami, and Virginia Tech. They’ve also still got 4-1 Duke, who was ranked as recently as last week. In other words, there are a lot of tough games left. A loss here would drop Pitt to 2-4 and make reaching even last year’s five-win total a stiff challenge. And that, of course, means that getting to six wins to reach a bowl of any sort is even harder than that. If Pitt wants to get to a bowl game, a win here is all but necessary.

The actual win total at this point could be irrelevant. What the program also wants to avoid is fan apathy. Lose this game and you could be looking at a three-win or four-win year. Now, try to sell tickets next year with two straight losing seasons and without Penn State or Notre Dame on the home schedule. Pitt does get a break with seven home games over the next two years so there’s an extra game of revenue. But next year’s home slate is Delaware, Ohio, UCF, BC, Miami, North Carolina, and Virginia. Good luck selling that coming off of consecutive losing seasons.

Pitt’s season very much is on the line here and a loss sending them into a tailspin could have ramifications even beyond this season.

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