When Pittsburgh reached the 2018 ACC Championship Game only to lose to Clemson by a billion points, the Panthers appeared to be 1 of those division-winners that should be happy to have gotten to the title scrum and would fade back into the pack, like Northwestern in the Big Ten.
But it’s 2019 already, and Pitt looks potentially like a stronger team than the ’18 version. In fact, few teams have been in – or prevailed in – as many high-profile kickoffs as Pat Narduzzi’s charges over the last month. The Panthers stand at 4-2 with only a bad start vs Virginia and a close-shave loss to Penn State marring the new campaign.
Meanwhile, the Syracuse Orange are troubling fans through 6 games, going 3-3 after losing to the only 2 comparable programs that the team has faced. The only hopeful sign is that the most-recent Power-5 loss was at least a closer game than the 63-20 drubbing at the hands of Maryland earlier this year.
Gamblers remember the Maryland-over-Syracuse blow-out just fine.
Pittsburgh opened as less than a field-goal favorite on the spread against the host Orange this Friday night, but is now a (-3.5) favorite after merely a day’s betting action.
Who: Pittsburgh Panthers at Syracuse Orange
When: Friday, October 18th, 7 PM EST
Where: Carrier Dome, Syracuse, NY
Lines: Pitt (3.5) at Syracuse (+3.5) / O/U Total: (52)
Dino Babers’ offense has been pretty good against lower-tier programs and rotten against the Power-5 this season. Led by workmanlike QB Tommy Devito, the Orangemen ran the pigskin well against Liberty, scored 2 touchdowns in 3 out of 4 quarters against Western Michigan, and put up 41 points on Holy Cross despite pedestrian rushing numbers from most of the offensive backfield. The Syracuse offense could be forgiven after the Maryland game in which its counterparts on defense were lousy, and could be excused for struggling against the Clemson Tigers…a team that (ahem) 1 or 2 schools have been known to struggle moving the ball against.
But there’s little excuse for last week’s dead-in-the-water 3 quarters vs NC State. North Carolina State QBs are coming in multitudes these days, and someone named Bailey Hoffman took most of the snaps for the Wolfpack last weekend, throwing for 205 yards and an interception. Syracuse never took advantage, letting the Wolfpack defense set the edge and failing to convert on key 3rd downs. Blocking is obviously a huge issue:
Syracuse football’s offense has lived under the mantra “Orange is the New Fast” (#OITNF) under Babers and there has been little reason to doubt that thus far. As of now, replacing one letter and doing a slight rearrangement in the word “fast” describes the current condition of the Orange offense – Flat.
The Orange did manage to scrap together 341 yards on 76 plays against N.C. State, but the various signs of offensive trouble can’t hide behind the curtains any longer. At the heart of the issue is the continued struggle of the Orange offensive line. DeVito was sacked eight times by N.C. State. In fact, DeVito rarely looked comfortable enough to deliver a clean pass through four quarters of football in Raleigh Thursday night. The Orange offensive line continues to miss the veteran presence of Sam Heckel, who is still out with an upper-body injury. That said, at what point do reasons start to become excuses?
It’s a strategic mistake on several levels for Babers to try to turn Syracuse’s offense into a fast-break unit with sugar huddles and those “Jack Nicholson in The Shining” signal-boards that up-tempo teams use to confuse opponents. With a QB who isn’t good enough to make things happen on his own, and a behind-the-curve OL that needs a life raft, it would be best for the Orange to dial things back and try to recapture the gritty, ball-control, defense-friendly style that enabled Syracuse to knock-off Clemson in 2017. But coaches are stubborn people.
Pitt looks like the true favorite here by more than 3 or 4 points. Narduzzi’s team appears to have been down-graded in Las Vegas slightly thanks to a close-shave win over Delaware on September 28th, but the Fightin’ Blue Hens are a tough FCS program that should have a good season despite losing to the Sandbaggers, er, the Bison of North Dakota State a few weeks ago.
Besides, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think Pittsburgh was already looking ahead to the next ACC contest against Duke, having worked through an arduous opening stretch of opponents in UVA – Ohio – UCF – Penn State against which Pitt went an impressive 2-2.
It takes a big, athletic, well-oiled OL to run the rock vs Pitt – Ohio and Delaware combined for less than 100 rushing yards in 8 quarters against the Panthers. QB Kenny Pickett returned from injury to lead Pittsburgh to a 33-30 win at Duke last Saturday, and should be able to locate receivers like Taysir Mack against a Syracuse defense which has mostly underwhelmed.
Syracuse should be able to protect Devito OK in the 1st half thanks to playing in the Carrier Dome, and may choose to nickel-and-dime on offense to try to keep the chains moving and the quarterback on his feet. That makes the Under (52) an interesting wager.
But don’t confuse that handicap for the usual correlation between Under-result and underdog-chances. Pitt should win by at least 7-10 points whether the point total goes high or low.
Take the visitors to cover (-3.5) in Syracuse.