Pitt prepares for Syracuse

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The 14th-ranked Pitt Panthers are heading into their stretch run and have a daunting schedule facing them.

Pitt (7-1, 4-0 Big East) will play two ranked opponents (No. 4 Cincinnati and No. 19 Notre Dame) and it plays on the road against its bitter rival, West Virginia.

But before the Panthers start to worry about doing all of that heavy lifting, they have a tricky home game Saturday against Big East bottom-feeder Syracuse (3-5, 0-3).

Tricky is the word used around the program to describe the game because it should be an easy victory for the Panthers but given the history of the series between these two teams, it isn't likely to be one.

That's because the Orange always play tough against the Panthers and the games between the two teams often come down to the end before a winner is decided.

The Panthers were 9-4 last season and finished second in the Big East while the Orange were 3-9 and finished in last place.

Yet when the two teams met at the Carrier Dome at the end of September, the Orange gave the Panthers all they could handle and had an 11-point lead in the second half before Pitt scored 18 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to come from behind and win, 34-24.

Two years ago the Orange were again a bottom-feeder in the Big East yet they had the ball with a chance to win on the game's final drive. The Panthers held on for a 20-17 win.

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt has made it very clear that nobody at Pitt is looking forward to Notre Dame, West Virginia or Cincinnati because they are all focused on the Orange.

He said he expects this to be one of the toughest games the Panthers have played to this point and he has had his team focused on the Orange almost since the final seconds ticked off the clock from their 41-14 win against South Florida Saturday.

Wannstedt said the Orange may not have a great record, but they have a great history and they also look like a team on the rise again.

"Pitt had a long streak when they didn't beat Syracuse," Wannstedt said. "Syracuse is one of those programs with great tradition, great academics. They can go around the country and recruit. Last year we were down by 11 in the fourth quarter. The year before it was 10-10 halfway through the fourth quarter.

"It's a conference game and it's Pitt-Syracuse. And we better be ready to play better than we have."

Although the Orange are in a down cycle, people around the program believe they are headed back to prominence under the direction of first-year coach Doug Marrone, who was hired to replace Greg Robinson.

Wannstedt said that it is clear Marrone had energized the program and it is also clear that he is building the foundation for a program that indeed will be among the best in the Big East.

"They're definitely playing at a higher level than what they did last year," Wannstedt said. "Doug has done a good job of bringing back alive the tradition, the pride of the program. And he can relate to it. He was there when they were good, and the players are responding."

Paul Zeise can be reached at pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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