Opponent Preview: Everything to know about No. 20 Pittsburgh

Gavin Liddell | Staff Photographer

Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett averages 370 yards per game. What else to know about the Panthers before Syracuse’s regular season finale.

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Following two straight blowout losses on the road, Syracuse returns home for its final regular season game of the season on Saturday night against No. 20 Pittsburgh. The Orange picked up a fifth win on Oct. 30 against Boston College but have since lost at Louisville, 41-3, and at NC State, 41-17. Saturday’s game is SU’s final chance at earning bowl eligibility this season.

The Panthers, meanwhile, are one of the top teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and have already clinched a spot in this year’s conference championship game. But Pitt lost to Miami and Western Michigan — both unranked teams — and haven’t beat an Associated Press Top 25 team all season.

Here’s everything to know about Pittsburgh ahead of its trip to Syracuse on Saturday:

All-time series

Pittsburgh leads, 41-31-3


Last time they played

SU and Pitt met in the second week of the season last year, with the then-No. 25 Panthers winning, 21-10. The Orange kept it close throughout, only trailing 14-10 at halftime after Rex Culpepper threw a 69-yard pass to a streaking Taj Harris in the second quarter. But Pittsburgh answered with a second touchdown from quarterback Kenny Pickett, and shut out Syracuse in the second half for its second win of the season.

Culpepper’s touchdown pass came after starting quarterback Tommy DeVito left the game with a knee injury, but the New Jersey native replaced Culpepper in the second half. Neither signal caller threw for over 100 yards, with Culpepper finishing with just 19 beyond the throw to Harris, and DeVito ending with 32 yards, an interception and seven sacks.

Pitt’s defense shutdown the Orange all game, with Rashad Weaver and Cam Bright each finishing with seven tackles. Weaver also led the Panthers with two sacks, and was one of seven different Panthers players to bring down DeVito.

Pickett threw 36 times, completing 25 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns. Syracuse’s defense contained Pitt’s offense, but its own offense struggled throughout, leading to SU’s second straight loss to open the season.

The Pittsburgh report

Pickett has become one of the top quarterbacks in the nation this season, and has thrown for 3,857 yards this season (No. 5 nationally) and 36 touchdowns (tied for No. 4 in the country). He’s thrown for at least 200 yards in every game this season, and 300 or more in all but three games. Pickett’s arm has been the main reason for the Panthers offense averaging just under 44 points per game, the best mark in the ACC.

The quarterback’s top option this season by a wide margin has been receiver Jordan Addison. The sophomore is the best wideout in the conference statistically, and has hauled in 74 catches for 1,272 yards this season, along with 15 touchdowns. Addison averages nearly seven catches per game, and had his best game of the season last week against UVA, finishing with 14 receptions, 202 yards and four touchdowns.

Pitt’s defensive numbers this season haven’t been quite as strong, but the Panthers still have the sixth-best defense in the ACC. Defensive back Brandon Hill leads them with 62 total tackles, while defensive lineman Habakkuk Baldonado has recorded eight sacks, fourth-most in the conference.

How Syracuse beats Pittsburgh

The main thing the Orange need to fix after their last two losses is containing the big plays on defense. Syracuse was still competing against NC State in the first half before quarterback Devin Leary began finding open receivers on deep shots. Two of them went for over 45 yards, and resulted in two of the four touchdowns the Wolfpack scored in the second quarter.

Against Pittsburgh, SU will have to find a way to contain Pickett — a better passer than Leary — and not allow splash plays. This can be done by getting pressure on Pickett, and not giving him too much time to throw. Against Malik Cunningham and Louisville, Syracuse’s defense suffered several miscommunications, defensive lineman Cody Roscoe said, resulting in Cunningham having plenty of time in the pocket to throw.

The Orange will also have to throw the ball better than they have against the Cardinals and the Wolfpack. Quarterback Garrett Shrader is in the midst of one of the worst three-game passing stretches by an SU signal caller over the last 20 years, and hasn’t thrown for over 100 yards since playing Virginia Tech in October. On Saturday, Shrader will have to step up, hit open receivers when he needs to, and make strong decisions — unlike the decision he made which resulted in a pick six against NC State.

Stat to know: 370.4

Pickett has the third-highest total offense mark of any player in the Football Bowl subdivision this season, averaging over 370 yards per game on his own. The quarterback only trails Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong and Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe, showing his impressive offensive numbers this season.

Player to watch: Jordan Addison, wide receiver

Addison has over 600 more receiving yards than the next player on Pitt’s roster, highlighting how important he is to Pickett and the Panthers’ offense. The Frederick, Maryland native was a finalist for the nation’s top receiver last season, a finalist again this year and a contender for All-American honors. Addison led the FBS with 15 touchdown receptions in 2020.

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