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Against the Odds: Pitt heavy favorites against Syracuse

Pitt was a heavy favorite against Duke last week and the Panthers responded by easily covering an already lopsided spread, winning by 42 points. The Panthers are again big favorites this week against Syracuse.

Facing the Orange on Saturday, the line for the game opened at around 23 1/2 points in Pitt's favor and has even expanded by another point with it now up at 24 1/2.

The Panthers should win this one if they show up. They have the game at home and Syracuse is expected to again be without starting quarterback Eric Dungey who has been out with an injury. Pitt is also on a roll, having won their last two games against Clemson and Duke.

Additional motivation probably isn't needed, but it will also be Senior Day for those graduating as they will be playing their last home game. Junior running back James Conner could also be heading to the NFL Draft and leaving as well, so this could be his last home game, too.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Pitt-Syracuse Q&A with Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician

Had some time this week to put together a brief Q&A in advance of the Pitt-Syracuse game. Answering my questions was John Cassillo over at SB Nation's Syracuse site, Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician.

They'll also be running my answers to their questions as well.

Syracuse will likely be missing quarterback Eric Dungey on Saturday. What can you tell us about backup Zack Mahoney?

Mahoney was brought in last year as a walk-on who fit really well into (former offensive coordinator) Tim Lester's option-based attack. This year, we're a more pass-focused team and the transition hasn't gone incredibly well for him. He's still our best option beyond Dungey. But his strength is running the football, not throwing it. So the offense has struggled with him at the helm. He'll hit an open man downfield now and again, but if this team is going to move the ball, it'll have to be via short screens and quarterback runs.

Amba Etta-Tawo has not only been the best receiver in the league but one of the best in the country. Prior to this season, he'd only been a modest contributor. What has been the change that's flipped the switch for him?

The system, really. Maryland (where he came from) underutilized him and had their own offensive issues with the previous regime. Here, he's able to put his size, speed and great hands to use and just run. As the team's top deep receiving option, he's regularly put in single coverage against smaller defensive backs, and he takes full advantage of the mismatch. He's a great route-runner, and has versatility, too. If you start giving him a cushion to avoid getting beat deep, he'll just catch screens on you all day instead.

Syracuse's defense has struggled against the run and the pass this year. But who are some of the key guys on that unit that fans should be watching for?

Yeah, the transition from the old, blitz-focused scheme to a coverage-focused Tampa-2 has not gone well -- and has been made worse by a rash of injuries and minimal depth in both the front and back. Still, there are some players who have thrived this year, especially along the back seven. Daivon Ellison and Christopher Frederick started the year on the bench, but due to injuries, they've received a ton of playing time and are now among our best performers in the secondary. Defensive captain Zaire Franklin has found various ways to impact the game from the middle linebacker spot, and was the leader of a sort-of mid-year turnaround for this group. We'll see if he ends up playing in this one, however. He left last week's FSU loss with an injury.

The Orange pulled off a big upset over Virginia Tech, a team that Pitt couldn't beat. What did they do in that game that led to the win?

The defense was able to generate pressure (not common this year), and the offense was able to minimize mistakes and force Tech to operate at their speed for much of the game. The Hokies are implementing some tempo this year, but it's still not at the same speed as Syracuse at full strength. SU was able to score early and dictate the pace, forcing Virginia Tech into a one-dimensional passing game that didn't suit their personnel well. For once, the Orange were also able to cut down on mistakes, which have plagued the team for much of the year.

What are the expectations for the Orange in Year 2 under Dino Babers? Babers' head coaching experience has been limited but at each of his last two stops, his teams have excelled in the second season under his watch.

The schedule is a bear again next year, but there are high hopes for what this team can do in year two under Babers. There's been noticeable improvement on both sides of the ball, and without the wide-ranging collection of injuries, you would've noticed more wins coming with this year's improvement too. A healthy Dungey and offensive line, plus a more-experienced secondary should yield better results (like six or seven wins) in Babers's second year.

Give us a prediction for this weekend's game.

Injuries were a theme above, and they will be in this game as well. Syracuse is too banged up in the trenches to stop Pitt's run game or prevent the Panthers' pass rush. With the quarterback position failing to be much of a spark either, the Orange simply don't have the ability to keep up with what should be a strong ground attack for Pitt. Hate to see SU squander a chance to sneak into the postseason via APR score, but it's too much of a stretch to predict a win. Pitt 38, Syracuse 21 Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

James Conner still unsure about NFL future

The Pitt running back says he’s not yet made up his mind about leaving school early for the pros

Pitt’s football season is almost over and that means it will be time for some players to make decisions about declaring early for the NFL Draft. No player’s decision on the team will be studied as closely as that of running back James Conner.

For the record, Conner isn’t ready to make that decision yet.

With a monster 2014 season in the ACC, Conner has already proven he can dominate the college game. His numbers took a bit of a hit this season, but Conner has again proved he’s more than capable. He will likely reach the 1,000-yard mark (currently, he has 945 yards) and has scored 17 total touchdowns. Conner has also added a new dynamic to his game as a receiver with 18 catches for 254 yards. Those 18 grabs are twice as many as he’s had the rest of his time at Pitt.

On the surface, Conner looks like an easy candidate to jump to the NFL. And my (uneducated) guess is that if he’s projected to go anywhere in the first half of the Draft, he will go. But therein lies the problem. Conner is projected to be a later-round pick right now making his immediate future less certain.

Conner, of course, could still go, even if that holds true. After all, he’s cleared so many hurdles already with defeating cancer, playing effectively in limited time on defense, and returning from an MCL injury. Plus, running backs have a limited shelf life in the NFL and the longer he plays in college, the shorter, in theory, his pro career would be.

Reasons to return are there, however. As a late-round pick, it could be harder for him to make a roster. Plus, the running back corps for this next draft is expected to be very strong. Perhaps he moves up the list a bit with another strong performance and some of his main competition out of the way.

Conner, too, has said he’d like to have his jersey retired at Pitt. He already might have that happen, but another strong year would help that cause.

Finally, consider that Conner is a star in college. There are no such guarantees in the pros. Suppose, for example, that he jumps to the pros early and flames out quickly. It’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t regret staying in school for another year and just enjoying playing at a high level. While the NFL will still be there in another season, there’s no going back to college once you leave.

In the neutral area, I put the team aspect. The allure of helping Pitt to win a Division and reach an ACC title game is there, of course. But while the team has a lot back next year, they’re also going to be breaking in some new offensive linemen and also a new quarterback. Not a complete deal-breaker when trying to determine Pitt’s chances at winning the Division, but certainly not ideal.

I was pretty convinced that Conner would leave early but given some of the draft projections, I’m less certain now. But we won’t have to wait too much longer to hear his decision.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Pitt defeats Yale at The Pete, 75-70

Behind another monster performance from Michael Young, the Panthers won their fourth game of the year

Things came right down to the wire, but in the end, Pitt held on for a close 75-70 win over Yale on Tuesday.

It was more of the same for Pitt in terms of Michael Young and Jamel Artis. The two combined for 44 points and Young in particular was just so dominant. In addition to his 24 points, his ten rebounds and four blocks were team-highs. These guys are the top two scorers in the ACC and when you have such a strong duo leading the way, they’re capable of big things.

Young and Artis aren’t just scoring, either. They’re doing so while hitting a high-percentage of their shots. Young is making close to 60% of his shots on the season while Artis is close to 50%. It would be one thing if they were scoring but not at an efficient rate. But both are doing a good job at getting high-percentage shots.

Three-pointers kept it close for Yale. They hit 11 of them to Pitt’s five and shot 41% from there. But the difference for Pitt, aside from what Young did individually, was at the free throw line. The Panthers shot 23 of them (making 18) while Yale was only 5-6. In a game played in the 70s, 13 points makes a world of difference.

At some point, you have to think Young will slow down a bit. But even when the team gets into conference play, I honestly don’t know how much his numbers will drop. He’s such a huge part of the team and if he continues getting 15 shots a night, it’s hard to see his numbers taking too big of a hit. Seeing him average 20 points a game this year would not be that much of a reach and Artis might not be too far behind, either.

Pitt could use a third guy contributing, whether it’s Cam Johnson, Sheldon Jeter, or Ryan Luther. Tonight, it was Johnson, who had 15 after a run of three-pointers in the second half. As long as Pitt gets a third scorer in the mix to go along with Young and Artis, they should be competitive. Look at the lone loss against SMU, for example. Pitt failed to get a third guy in double figures in scoring and fell short. A third scorer is key for the team.

No, the bench didn’t give Pitt much again. But to be honest, if the starters are playing well enough, that’s mostly a non-factor right now. Where it becomes an issue is if those guys don’t play much and then are thrust into action for extended time due to an injury or foul issues. You want to get those guys regular minutes but you also have to play your best players, so it’s a balancing act of sorts.

Overall, a quality game for Pitt. Despite getting routed by Virginia the other night, I think Yale will turn out to be a decent team. The Panthers can’t really afford to lose too many of these types of games when it comes to making the NCAA Tournament. Solid but not outstanding opponent and at home, you’ve got to win these.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Against The Odds: Vegas gives Pitt the edge over Yale

The Vegas line give Pitt a double digit lead cushion over the Yale Bulldogs tonight.

Pitt comes home from a Madison Square Garden to the friendly confines of The Peterson Events Center. The Pete has been kind to Pitt over the years and Vegas has taken notice for their game tonight against the Yale Bulldogs, of the Ivy League.

Vegas opened giving Pitt a six-point cushion, but as of this writing, that has been pushed up to 10.5. That may surprise some as Yale is coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance last season and are the defending Ivy League Champions. However, Yale was dealt a decent injury blow when guard Makai Mason went down for the year with a broken foot. The All-Ivy League junior is a player the Bulldogs depended on a fair amount last season and was Yale’s leading scorer last season.

Pitt also probably bolstered their stature in Sin City with their latest win over Marquette on a neutral floor, while Yale bowed down to ACC power Virginia in their latest contest. The Bulldogs faded down the stretch the Cavaliers. Pitt also has a 59-1 all-time record, in November, at home, since The Pete opened its doors.

Jerry Jones will try and find a way to contain Mike Young, of Pitt in this game, while also making sure players like Cam Johnson don’t get going from three point land. While Pitt is still getting used to new coach Kevin Stallings, Yale has the definition of consistency with Jones entering his 18th year as the Bulldog coach.

Pitt’s best chance is to jump out early and plant a seed of doubt. The Oakland Zoo should be at their vocal best this evening, as students prepare to head home for a little Thanksgiving break. If the Panthers can get a jump early, the students could give them a wave to ride for a good portion of the game.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author@BrunoPittsburgh

Weekly Kickoff: Pitt looks to finish season strong with win against Syracuse

Only a few weeks ago, Pitt's season was in doubt. The Panthers were 5-4 and by everyone's account, on their way to being 5-5 after a date with Clemson. But the team not only won that one, they annihilated Duke this weekend, 56-14. At 7-5, the Panthers will have a chance to win their eighth regular season game if they can knock off Syracuse on Saturday.

That eighth straight win would be significant. It would be the second straight year the team won eighth regular season games for the first time since the Dave Wannstedt era.

Pitt can't afford to take Syracuse for granted, but this is certainly a game the Panthers should win. They are a better team than the Orange and also get the game at home.

Syracuse is only 4-7 on the year and, really, they have only one win of any significance, shocking Virginia Tech a few weeks back. The Orange's other victories have come against Colgate, UConn, and Boston College. Syracuse has not been a good team this year and further hurting their chance against Pitt is the fact that they will likely be without starting quarterback Eric Dungey, who was knocked out of the Clemson game a few weeks ago. Head coach Dino Babers has already said he is not likely to start against Pitt.

So, what's there to know about Syracuse this season? With Dungey, they had one of the premier passing attacks in the country, averaging over 300 yards through the air per game. Without him? Not so much. Backup and probable starter Zack Mahoney has been decent, but not stellar. In the last two weeks when he's started, Mahoney didn't crack 200 yards in passing. With wideout Amba Etta-Tawo, Syracuse is more than capable of going to the air, though. Etta-Tawo not only leads the ACC in receiving, but the next closest guy, Clemson's Mike Williams, is a full 290 yards behind him. On the season, Etta-Tawo has 81 catches for 1,304 yards and nine touchdowns. Even without Dungey, Syracuse's passing game should still concern Pitt.

Unfortunately, it's not been nearly enough for Syracuse to win games. With only 109.7 yards per game, the Orange's running game is one of the worst in the nation and against Pitt's strong run defense, it only emphasizes the need to stop the pass even more.

Defensively, Syracuse has been a mess. They rank near the bottom of the country in run defense (96th), pass defense (96th), total defense (119th), and scoring defense (108th). If there's one thing Pitt should do on Saturday, it's score. A lot.

As if that weren't enough, the Orange are also one of the most heavily penalized teams in the country, averaging over eight penalties for more than 60 yards per game.

While Syracuse boasts the strong passing game, I'm not sure they'll be able to remain too competitive with that defense - particularly if Pitt's secondary has another good showing as they did last week. Add it all up and the Panthers have an excellent shot to win their eighth game of the season.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Ejuan Price, Quadree Henderson win weekly ACC honors

Pitt had a ton of standouts in the 56-14 thrashing of Duke on Saturday. Two of them were honored by the ACC this week for their play in the game.

Defensive end Ejuan Price, our Panther of the Game, was named ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week. He had two sacks, three tackles for losses, and two quarterback hurries for the defense that held the Blue Devils to only seven offensive points.

Specialist Quadree Henderson also electrified yet again, returning a punt for a touchdown to earn the ACC's Specialist of the Week award. In addition to his special teams work, he added 73 rushing yards, including a 52-yard touchdown run, and two catches.

Other Panthers not honored also had big games as well. James Conner set the all-time ACC touchdown mark and had 101 rushing yards with two touchdowns. Jester Weah caught two passes for 95 yards and a touchdown, and quarterback Nathan Peterman also threw three touchdown passes.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Michael Young Named ACC Player of the Week (Again)

Two weeks, two awards.

Pitt center Michael Young was named the conference's Player of the Week last week. This week? Same thing. The senior earned the award for a second straight week. Last week, he shared the honor. This week, however, he won it outright.

Need some idea of how special that is? It was the first time any Pitt men's basketball player has won back-to-back conference Player of the Week awards since Sam Clancy did it nearly 40 years ago. Plus, consider that the Panthers are also playing in arguably the toughest conference in the country and it's even more special.

For Young, it was again deserved. In the team's three games against Gardner-Webb, SMU, and Marquette, he scored 23.3 points, grabbed 7.3 rebounds, and shot 55% from the field and 91% from the free throw line, leading the Panthers to two wins.

Young leads the ACC in scoring at 24 points per game and Pitt's Jamel Artis is second, checking in at 19.8. That pace won't continue but for now, both guys have played like All-Conference first team performers.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

The Turning Point: An Early Turnover

Pitt’s offense has kept pressure on their opponents all year, but yesterday, the defense helped jump start that pressure early.

Pitt’s offense has been in its fair share of back and forth games, where they have been forced to keep up with the opponents abusing the Panther defense. Pitt’s defense decided to flip the script yesterday, and it worked. They did it early and it keyed a 56-14 Pitt Panther conference victory. An early turnover put the Blue Devils on their heels and they never really seemed to recover.

On Duke’s second offensive play of the game, Shaun Wilson was met in the middle of the line by sophomore linebacker, Oluwaseun Idowu. Idowu, who has quietly had a solid season, forced a fumble deep in Duke territory. The loose ball was picked up by fellow linebacker Matt Galambos and gave Pitt the football at the Blue Devils’ 17-yard line. Three plays later, Pitt was up by seven and off and running.

Duke was able to tie the game, but with Pitt getting the ball to start the second half of the game, the early turnover had the Devils feeling the heat the rest of the half. Pitt’s offense didn’t let up and it helped give the Panthers a nice lead and the offense continued to build on that lead to give Pitt fans some breathing room...for once this season.

Idowu, a North Allegheny graduate, spent the entire training camp locked into a battle with converted linebacker, Elijah Zeise. Zeise went down in the Villanova game and has been out ever since. Pitt needed Idowu to step up and and he has all year. He may have been missing a big splash play, but that changed yesterday for the better, giving Pitt an important conference victory.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author@BrunoPittsburgh

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