November 22, 2013

Behind Enemy Lines

Syracuse takes on Pittsburgh tomorrow and for a closer look at the Panthers CuseConfidential,com talked with Josh Sickles of

What kind of player has Tom Savage become from year one at Rutgers to now?

He's definitely become more experienced. That's counter intuitive considering prior to September he hadn't played a meaningful snap since 2010. However, he's still played a lot more football, even coming from practice, which has helped him this season. Savage has prototypical NFL size, and has a strong enough arm to make every throw. He's also done a solid job of taking care of the football, only throwing seven interceptions, though he did lose a crucial fumble early on against North Carolina.

Savage has had two main problems this season. The first problem has been the sacks as he's been sacked 37 times through ten games. The blame has been spread around. The offensive line hasn't played well. Savage can also have the tendency to hold onto the ball, looking for the play downfield and that gets him into trouble. He's done a better job getting rid of the ball, but it's still been a problem for Savage and the offense in general to take this many negative yardage plays. The second problem has been Savage's accuracy. Part of this comes from the sacks, or at least being worried about the pressure, but he's missed more open receivers this season than you would think a fifth-senior would. Still, Savage has shown the ability to change the game like he did against Duke with 424 yards and six touchdowns.

What are some weaknesses that this team has that Syracuse could attack and why?

Pitt's defense has never been good at containing mobile quarterbacks, even going back to the days that Russell Wilson was at N.C. State. Last week against North Carolina, Marquise Williams rushed 15 times for 79 yards and two touchdowns. On both touchdown runs, Pitt defenders had a chance to take Williams down before the goal-line and whiffed. The Panthers might struggle against Hunt, pending on how much he uses his legs.

Pitt's offense has struggled in two areas - running the football and giving up sacks. This is a huge area of concern against a Syracuse team that hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher and averages 3.0 sacks per game. Pitt running backs Isaac Bennett and James Conner have been effective at times, but it's been a mixed bag of what you will get in the run game each week. The sacks come from everything I listed above - poor offensive line play, missed assignments, Tom Savage holding onto the ball too long. If Pitt can't control either of these two things, it obviously spells trouble for the Panther offense.

This season it looks like this Pitt team can be very inconsistent. One week they lose to Navy and comeback win against Notre Dame and then start slow against UNC. What is the reason for the back and forth play?

That's the million dollar question, and no one - not even the coaches - really have an answer. Head coach Paul Chryst's favorite phrase is "consistently inconsistent," and that's what the team has been over the past two seasons and really even beyond that. Look at last season, after beating a ranked Virginia Tech team and then demolishing Gardner-Webb before a bye, Pitt comes out and lays an egg against Syracuse. Later that season, they take Notre Dame to the brink and are one field goal away from dashing the Irish national title hopes. Then, they come out and lose to a horrendous Connecticut team.

There's nothing that I or anyone else really can do to explain the inconsistency, but for some reason, Pitt just hasn't been able to string together a couple of good performances. Anyone can do anything once, but Chryst is trying to get this team to be able to do it over and over.

Syracuse fans know about Savage, Boyd, Street, and Donald, but who are a couple players Orange fans should watch out for and why?

On offense, watch out for freshman running back James Conner. Like I said earlier, Pitt's running game has struggled, but if anyone can make headway against Syracuse, Conner would be the guy. He's a bit big back with an Eddie George-type body at 6'2" 230. He runs a little bit high and has had some fumbling problems earlier this season. However, when he gets running hard, downhill and effectively, he's very difficult to bring down. Last week, he's run 19 times for 102 yards and a score against North Carolina, which was his third 100-yard game of the season. He is Pitt's best chance to get the running game going on Saturday.

On defense, look for the safeties Jason Hendricks and Ray Vinopal. Hendricks is a stud playmaker, who will lineup all over the field, playing deep and coming up in the box. He's tied for the team lead in tackles and provides solid playmaker in the secondary. Vinopal is a bit more interesting. He served as the whipping boy for a lot of Pitt's defensive struggles early this season, but in the past two games, he's accounted for four turnovers on his own. Against Notre Dame, he forced a fumble early, then made a pair of interceptions on back-to-back Tommy Rees passes.

Pitt will win if…

Pitt will win if the offense can get the running game going. Easier said than done against Syracuse, but that's still the key. If the running game gets going, that will allow Pitt to work the play-action. It'll provide Tom Savage more time in the pocket and just benefit the offense as a whole. I think Pitt's defense will hold the Syracuse offense in check to give Pitt's offense an opportunity to win it, and that starts with the rushing game.

Syracuse will win if…

Syracuse will win if they can put some points on the board early. Pitt's team is not designed to play catch up when getting in an early deficit. Now, the Panthers did overcome a 24-point deficit in the second half of last week's game against North Carolina, but that was the exception, not the rule. If the Orange offense can come out quickly and put some quick points on the board, it will put a lot of pressure on the Pitt offense, which will allow Syracuse pass rushers to pin their ears back and get after Savage. If the Orange can do that, it will be a long day for the Panthers.

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