By JOHN KEKIS
SYRACUSE, N.Y. —
The regular season is down to two games for the newcomers in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Pittsburgh and Syracuse are feeling some extra pressure.
That both are longtime rivals and refugees of the Big East and have five wins apiece makes today’s matchup in the Carrier Dome very intriguing: The winner qualifies for the postseason and the loser takes another step closer to the brink.
“It’s always better if you can be bowl-eligible before the end of your last game,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. “In many ways, you’d like to say it shouldn’t change the approach, shouldn’t change the way your guys feel about this. I don’t think desperation is the right word by any means. I feel good about the sense of urgency.”
The word “pressure” doesn’t seem to be in the lexicon of first-year Orange coach Scott Shafer, except when he’s talking about his blitzing defense.
“For us, the focus has got to be just getting the next win, and if we stay small with our target and our focus is on that, all of the bigger things take care of themselves,” Shafer said.
There’s a bowl logjam in the conference. Eight teams, led by unbeaten and second-ranked Florida State (10-0), have the requisite six wins, and either Syracuse (5-5, 3-3 ACC) or Pitt (5-5, 2-4) will make it at least nine this week. North Carolina also is one victory away, and the Tar Heels (5-5) are home against FCS member Old Dominion.
The ACC has agreements to send at least eight – and as many as 10 – of its members to bowl games if they qualify. So, 7-5 looks and sounds a lot better than 6-6.
“It’s huge,” Pitt tackle Matt Rotheram said. “We all want to go to a bowl game, so this is a big game for us. It’s also a big game for Syracuse.”
Five things to look for when Pitt travels to Syracuse for the second straight year:
Get Savage: Pitt QB Tom Savage is coming off his second-best passing game of the season – 23 of 38 for 313 yards and two touchdowns – but the Panthers still lost 34-27 to North Carolina as Pitt’s special teams allowed two punt returns for touchdowns. Savage was sacked seven times to bring the team’s season total to 37 allowed behind an offensive line beleaguered by injuries and inexperience. The Syracuse defense has recorded a quarterback sack in 13 consecutive games and ranks 14th in the FBS in tackles for loss per game at 7.5.
Run Terrel run: Syracuse QB Terrel Hunt likes to run and ranks third on the Orange with 323 yards rushing. Hunt might be running more than he cares to with Pitt’s Aaron Donald on the prowl. One of six semifinalists for the Outland Trophy, Donald leads the nation in tackles for loss at 2.3 per game, ranks sixth in sacks (1.0 per game), and eighth in forced fumbles (0.40 per game). Donald also has 28.5 career sacks, the most in the nation among active players. Small wonder Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly called Donald a “one-man wrecking crew.”
Hit the changeup: With hard-running Jerome Smith (706 yards rushing, 11 TDs) and elusive Prince-Tyson Gulley (2,620 all-purpose career yards) leading the charge, the Orange are averaging 196.7 yards rushing per game, 37th nationally. Gulley is out for the Pitt game, but the Orange have a pair of other capable runners in redshirt freshmen Devante McFarlane and George Morris II, who combined for 148 yards on 34 carries against Florida State.
Even Steven: The Panthers and Orange have been about as evenly matched as possible in their 68 meetings. Pitt has averaged 19.8 points per game and Syracuse 19.6. The Orange went on an 11 game winning streak from 1991-2001 and the Panthers won seven straight before Syracuse edged them 14-13 in the Carrier Dome last year.
Third down or bust: If third down comes into play at a crucial point in the game, give the edge to Syracuse. The Orange rank sixth in the FBS in third-down defense (.299, 43-144).