BY NATALIE BIGLEY
Pitt and Syracuse were both off last weekend, which gave both ample time to prepare for tonight’s Big East Conference game, and one team will leave the Carrier Dome with its first conference win of the season.
And for Pitt (2-2), a win signifies the Panthers have reversed the fortunes of a horrific start to the season.
For Syracuse (1-3), a win means the Orange are a step closer to getting their program back on solid ground.
Momentum appears to be in Pitt’s corner. The Panthers are coming off back-to-back strong outings against Virginia Tech, which was ranked No. 13 at the time, and Gardner-Webb, an FCS school.
“Yes, we haven’t won in the Big East yet, but I think there’s also a lot more to it,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said.
Just like there’s a lot more to Syracuse’s record. One of the Orange’s losses came against USC, and the game was competitive for three quarters.
“They’ve had some tough games,” Chryst said. “They’ve also played some really good teams.”
Pitt has looked like a good team since losses to Youngstown State and Cincinnati to open the season.
Something clicked following those losses, however, as a suddenly confident Pitt team has outscored its last two opponents, 90-27.
With this quick shift in momentum, the damage inflicted by a series of coaching changes could be fading.
“There’s a lot of things that happened before and you have to be aware of it as a coach,” he said. “The only thing you can do is focus on the now and where we’re at. I think stability by nature is something that you can only bring over a course of time. We’re trying to do all we can, and are taking steps to get there.”
Marrone is in his fourth season at Syracuse. He was hired in 2008, after the Orange won only three games under Greg Robinson.
But in his four seasons, results have not met expectations. Marrone’s coaching record is 18-23, with only one bowl game appearance. That came in the 2010 Pinstripe Bowl, and Syracuse beat Kansas State.
Marrone repeatedly blamed himself during the week for this season’s slow start, using phrases like “my fault” and “poor job.” He said the Orange needed to work on a multitude of areas.
“We have to give ourselves an opportunity, and that’s not what we’re doing right now,” Marrone said.
This week, Syracuse focused on ball security.
Considering Syracuse turned the ball over four times in last week’s loss to Minnesota, it’s a good area to concentrate. Quarterback Ryan Nassib threw two interceptions and lost a fumble.
Still, Nassib has still put up some big numbers and will challenge the Pitt secondary. He has thrown for 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Wide receiver Marcus Sales has been a lot of help to Nassib. He has 27 receptions and five touchdown catches this season.
Despite last week’s performance against Minnesota, Pitt’s Chryst said the reason Syracuse has racked up yards in because of good decisions.
“I imagine they’re saying, ‘Who is our best player?’” Chryst said. “And it’s a pretty good plan — find their best player and put it in his hands.”
Over the past two weeks, the defense has made big improvements in tightening things up and getting more pressure on the quarterback. They forced three turnovers in their game against Gardner-Webb, holding the Runnin’ Bulldogs to only 127 offensive yards.
Pitt’s offense has also considerably improved over the last two games, with quarterback Tino Sunseri displaying impressive numbers. This season, he has 1,144 yards with eight touchdowns. And much like, Nassib, he has some crafty receivers to help him out, specifically Mike Shanahan and Devin Street.
“I think they’re two guys that should be making plays,” Chryst said. “They’re both talented and have played in a lot of games. For us to be as good as we can be, they have to be big contributors.”
Their performance will depend on the Syracuse defense. The Orange allowed the Golden Gophers to gain 337 yards and 17 points. Those numbers aren’t bad overall, but Syracuse is allowing more than 176 rushing yards per game.
Expect Pitt to provide a healthy dose of Ray Graham and Rushel Shell.