Beat writer Q&A: Brian Batko of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette breaks down the Syracuse-Pittsburgh game

first_img Facebook Twitter Google+ After two games away from the Carrier Dome, Syracuse (2-3, 0-1 Atlantic Coast) is back for its homecoming weekend and will face Pittsburgh (2-3, 0-1) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday. The Orange is coming off a 33-25 loss to N.C. State while the Panthers recently snapped a three-game losing streak by beating Rice, 42-10.Pittsburgh beat writer Brian Batko of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette answered five questions from The Daily Orange previewing the upcoming matchup.The Daily Orange: All kinds of offensive records were broken the last time these two teams matched up. Is that something the team has talked about going into this year’s game?Brian Batko: Yes and no. (Pitt head coach) Pat Narduzzi admitted to watching the tape “15 times” since the end of last season, simply to try to fix some of the defensive trouble spots in that game. But also this week, some players and assistants have given the cliched “that’s in the past, and we’re just looking forward to this year” line or “we’re no more excited for this game than any other,” more or less. And from the point of view of Pitt’s defense, not that many key contributors in 2017 even played in that game, what with injuries and graduation; Pitt’s top five tacklers from that one are no longer on the team. Those who did humor us by thinking back to that craziness kept mentioning that it was like a basketball game and that they’d never been part of such a high-scoring affair on a football field. To a man, no one wants to see that again.The D.O.: The Panthers are scoring significantly less than they did last year. Obviously some key players (James Conner, Nathan Peterman) are gone, but what else is limiting Pitt’s offense so far this season?AdvertisementThis is placeholder textB.B.: It’s not just James Conner and Nathan Peterman, but Pitt also lost its top two offensive linemen and tight end Scott Orndoff. Max Browne struggled quite a bit in his first three games before finally getting on track last week against lowly Rice. If that’s a sign of things to come in terms of him being more comfortable and more willing to take shots downfield, then Pitt’s offense can probably trend upward. Elsewhere, the ground game has been stuck in neutral, and while it had been easy to call that a symptom of the passing struggles, what’s the excuse for failing to run against Rice? Whether it’s run-blocking or pass-protection, the offensive line has been somewhere between a moderate and massive disappointment, especially when you consider it’s a unit with three returning starters and plenty of experience.The D.O.: Pitt gave up 61 points last year to the Orange without starting QB Eric Dungey playing. What is the plan to slow down the Orange offense this time?B.B.: First off, rush the passer and cause problems for Eric Dungey in the backfield, but that’s easier said than done. Pitt has just six sacks this season, all by different players. An inexperienced defensive line has been mostly invisible for long periods at a time. So when it comes to coverage, cornerbacks Avonte Maddox and Dane Jackson – both of whom have been a pleasant surprise – must continue to excel against the likes of Steve Ishmael. Most likely, it’ll be the 5-foot-9 Maddox on Ishmael the majority of the game. On the other side of the field, Jackson has been more of a playmaker, with two interceptions in the past four games. Speaking of takeaways, those would be a major boost to help Pitt’s defense get off the field in a particularly difficult matchup, as well. For what it’s worth, Pitt recovered four fumbles at Georgia Tech and picked off three passes last week against Rice.The D.O.: Who is Pitt’s key player in this game? Furthermore, is there a player who doesn’t get as much of the spotlight that fans should know about?B.B.: It’s probably the aforementioned Maddox, who’s small but feisty. He’s a three-year full-time starter, a four-year contributor who never redshirted and a team captain generally considered the vocal leader of the defense, if not the entire team. That said, he’s certainly been exposed by talented receivers, and Ishmael will be the next test for him to prove himself a reliable lockdown guy in Narduzzi’s system, which often puts its corners on an island. One player to watch for on offense is a name that should be familiar to Syracuse fans: redshirt sophomore tight end Chris Clark, the one-time Orange commit who overcame a couple early-season drops to catch his first career touchdown last week. If he and Browne form a legitimate rapport, that’ll be a QB-TE connection of two former five-star prospects who transferred to Pitt.The D.O.: How do you think the game turns out on Saturday and who wins?B.B.: Another back-and-forth air show is probably the most logical prediction here. For as much as Pitt’s secondary has seemingly improved, it was still torched just three weeks ago by an up-tempo team in Oklahoma State. Now granted, Oklahoma State’s personnel is probably more talented than Syracuse’s, but Ishmael and Ervin Philips both look mighty impressive this season. On the other side of the ball, whether Pitt’s passing game continues to click or Syracuse’s run defense continues to struggle, the Panthers should be able to put up points, too. Just not enough. Syracuse will win by a field goal. Comments Published on October 5, 2017 at 7:32 pm Contact Tomer: tdlanger@syr.edu | @tomer_langerlast_img

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