Pitt has had plenty of ups and downs during the Dave Wannstedt era, but one thing the Panthers have been able to count on is an annual victory against Syracuse.
The Panthers are 4-0 against the Orange under Wannstedt, the only team in the Big East he has never lost to.
But Wannstedt's dominance of the Orange should come with this disclaimer -- all four of those games came during the Greg Robinson era of Syracuse football.
Robinson inherited a proud program which had slipped in the final few years of Paul Pasqualoni's 14 seasons (1991-2004) as coach. It was still respectable in 2004, the year before Robinson took over, when the Orange were Big East co-champions and played in the Champs Sports Bowl.
But Robinson was 10-37 in his four seasons, annually signed one of the lowest-rated recruiting classes in the conference and had a Big East record of 3-25.
It was clear a change needed to be made, and Robinson was fired at the end of last season. Syracuse hired Doug Marrone, an alumnus and former player, to try to clean up the mess and restore the program to respectability.
Marrone's arrival and his positive attitude and work ethic have resonated well. Though the Orange (3-5, 0-3 Big East) are still looking for their first conference win, they are playing better than they have in recent years as and have been competitive in all of their games.
Wannstedt said Marrone's influence has been easy to see as the Orange are more physical and appear to be playing much harder on both sides of the ball.
"They're playing better now," Wannstedt said yesterday at his weekly news conference. "They are much improved. I think that Doug Marrone has these kids believing in the Syracuse tradition. They're giving phenomenal effort in all three phases. Last week against Cincinnati they were in position to tie it up right before the half when they threw the interception. Who knows if that doesn't happen?
"So there's no question that they are an improved football team. They've got talent and they're well coached."
The Pitt players had two days off over the weekend because of the open date but last week got a head start on watching film and working on the Orange.
Senior middle linebacker Adam Gunn said it is easy to see the Orange are playing a much different brand of football than and will give the 13th-ranked Panthers (7-1, 4-0) all they can handle.
"These have always been good games no matter what their record is or what our record is," Gunn said. "Absolutely [Syracuse is more physical than last year]. You can tell by watching the film that their line is very good, one of the top lines we'll face this year, and I think the running backs are the best we'll face all year, too.
"[Delone Carter], he is strong, physical and one of the biggest and fastest backs we'll face all year. We have to get ready for them and we told our scout team guys to go as hard as they can, run hard, don't shy away from contact because that is what we are about to get into this week."
Wannstedt said that while Marrone has the Orange playing a more physical brand of football, he also has done a lot to change their schemes. He said the most dramatic of the changes is on offense, where they utilize a spread formation.
"Offensively they give you a lot of different formations, a lot of different personnel groups," Wannstedt said. "They'll go three wide receivers, to four wide receivers, to two tight ends. I can see the NFL influence. They work for matchups.
"You can be fooled a little bit. They're going to try to spread you out and then they're really handing the ball off to try to pound the ball inside. It's a good scheme. They know what they're doing. Defensively, they're mixing in a lot of pressure. We've got to be ready for a lot of different looks from our offensive standpoint."
NOTES -- The Pitt-Notre Dame game Nov. 14 at Heinz Field will kick off at 8 p.m. and will be televised on ABC. ... Wannstedt said safety Elijah Fields (ankle) is still healing, which is why Jarred Holley is listed as the starter for Saturday's game. Fields is expected to play, however. ... Freshman middle linebacker Dan Mason has been moved to outside linebacker for the remainder of the season.. ... Cameron Saddler (high ankle sprain) will be back to his role of kick returner and will be lined up deep on kickoffs along with freshman Ray Graham. ... Marrone announced yesterday that Syracuse's standout receiver, Mike Williams, has quit the team. He had 49 catches for 746 yards and six touchdowns and was one of 10 finalists for the Biletnikoff Award. "He walked up to me and voluntarily took himself off the team. That's it," Marrone said at his weekly news conference yesterday.
Paul Zeise can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1720.