Pitt ready for 'good, old-fashioned' game with Syracuse

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Pitt (2-3) begins its Big East Conference season today when it plays at Syracuse (4-1, 1-0) in a game Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt calls a "good, old-fashioned Pitt-Syracuse game."

And that likely is a good way to describe a game that figures to have a certain throwback feel to it because of the style both teams play.

Last season, the Orange used a spread offense, but second-year coach Doug Marrone scrapped that and has transformed them into a pro-style, power-running team that wants to dominate opponents physically as much on offense as it does on defense.

That is not much different than Pitt's philosophy which means both teams better be prepared for some tough-man football.

"The word I'd use to describe them is physical," Wannstedt said. "What jumps out at you when you put the film on is that they are going to line up and play physical and challenge you, and, if you don't match that, you have no chance and you are going to get beat."


Game: Pitt (2-3, 0-0 Big East Conference) vs. Syracuse (4-1, 1-0), noon, today, Carrier Dome, Syracuse, N.Y. Pitt favored by one point.

TV, radio: WTAE-TV; KDKA-FM (93.7).

Pitt: Panthers lead the all-time series 32-30-3. ... Pitt has won five games in a row against the Orange and seven of the past eight. ... Pitt has won two games in a row at the Carrier Dome and three of its past four there.

Syracuse: Is 4-1 for the first time since 1999. That was also the last time the Orange began a season 5-1. ... The Orange has not won its Big East home opener since '04. ... Former Greensburg Central Catholic star Max Suter is a senior safety for the Orange. He was the Big East defensive player of the week last week after making eight tackles against South Florida, forcing a fumble and recording a sack.

Of note: Syracuse has allowed 160.4 passing yards per game. If that holds the rest of the season, it would represent its best pass defense since 1989.

Wannstedt likes playing Syracuse because he believes it is one of the most-underrated rivalries in college football. The teams have a long history and have staged some classics.

They have played every year since 1955, and today will mark the 66th meeting in a series that began in 1916. Pitt holds a 32-30-3 edge over the Orange, which is reflective of the fact that many games have been close and hard fought.

Even while the Orange has fallen on hard times in recent years (the Panthers have won the past five games and seven of the past eight), most games between them have been close with Pitt's 37-10 victory last year a rare exception.

In '08, the Panthers trailed much of the game before coming back to win, 34-24. In '07, the Panthers grabbed a 20-17 victory.

But Wannstedt contends that this Syracuse team is much different from the recent ones, especially on defense. As a result, the Panthers will need to match the Orange's increased intensity and physicality to have a chance to win.

He was so adamant about getting his message out that he had signs posted around the Panthers' South Side facility that read: "Syracuse, Physical". The team managers wore orange and white shirts with the same message to practices.

"This is always a tough game, I don't care when it was," Wannstedt said. "I can remember coaching here when we played for the national-championship game, and it was fourth-and-1 and they had the football. Al Romano made an acrobatic jump over the center on a quarterback sneak to stop him. Otherwise, they are going to kick a field goal, and Pitt is probably not going to win a national championship.

"And even games I played against them up there, as a player you always knew it was one of those physical games where the next day you wake up and every part of your body hurts. That is just how it was, and that is what we are expecting when we go up there."

The 1976 game Wannstedt spoke of was indeed a close one -- Pitt eventually won, 23-13 -- but more recent examples of close games can be found in double-overtime thrillers in 2000 and '04.

Pitt was picked to win the Big East this season, but the Panthers slow start has put a damper on those predictions and good feelings about the program.

But because the Panthers have yet to play a conference game, this is a new start, and Wannstedt said that seemed to add some enthusiasm to practices this week.

"We know we are in for a really tough game today," Wannstedt said. "But our guys also know that every game counts even more now that the conference games are starting. You can see it in the way we are preparing that our guys know something more is at stake. I expect us to play well."

Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720


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