Pitt’s defense stout in runaway victory over Syracuse
By: Ryan Bertonaschi
A clash between two of the youngest teams in college football, Pitt and Syracuse, was staged at Heinz Field on Saturday afternoon. When Pitt’s sophomore stud RB James Conner got knocked from the game with a hip injury, the Panthers backfield got younger, and their 10-point halftime lead over Syracuse didn’t seem as cushy.
At that point, it was only natural that some of the 32,549 fans in attendance would sit and wonder if their Panthers would crumble in the second half for the fifth time this season.
But a running back trio consisting of Chris James, Rachid Ibrahim and Isaac Bennett more than held its own after Conner was sidelined, and Pitt’s secondary, which had come under intense scrutiny after poor showings in recent weeks, put together an impressive outing. The combined effort gave the Panthers (5-6, 3-4 ACC) an edge over the Orange (3-8, 1-6 ACC) that would last, resulting in a 30-7 Pitt victory.
Pitt safety Ray Vinopal – just minutes before his parents and grandmother were introduced to the crowd as part of senior day festivities – pried the football from Syracuse running back Prince-Tyson Gulley on Syracuse’s second offensive drive. Another Senior, Todd Thomas, recovered the loose ball, and Pitt’s defense set a tone that would last into the evening.
Coming into the matchup, cornerback Avonte Maddox strung together a link of poor outings that were highlighted by his mishaps during Pitt’s loss to Duke, where star receiver Jamison Crowder dominated him three weeks ago.
Maddox, a 5-foot-9, 165-pound freshman, laid a booming hit on Syracuse quarterback AJ Long several minutes after the caused fumble, causing an eruption from the crowd.
Vinopal was pleased by Maddox’ efforts. “Those guys, they’re not freshmen anymore,” he said of Maddox and others in the secondary. Vinopal also broke up a would-be Syracuse touchdown pass in the game. “It’s tough when you’re playing as a true freshman. Things are fast out there, you’re not used to getting everything mentally at the speed of the game, but those guys are doing a great job, and they’ve really grown up.”
A couple of plays later, Syracuse was surging inside Pitt’s red zone. Long heaved a pass to his receiver in the right corner of the end zone, but Pitt cornerback Lafayette Pitts, who was also a week removed from consecutive poor outings, was well-positioned to steal the pass. Pitts dragged a foot in bounds as he clasped the spiral for an interception and a touchback.
“We felt like in the last couple of games, there were one or two plays here and there that really put the dagger in us, and trying to eliminate those plays was the focus of this week,” Vinopal added. “When the opportunity to make a play presents itself, you’ve got to make the play for the team.”
Outside of the secondary, sophomore outside linebacker Bam Bradley reeled in an interception in the second quarter that would deliver another blow to the Orange’s offense, and freshman defensive lineman Jeremiah Taleni recorded his first career tackle in the second half. Taleni, a Hawaii native, wrapped up Syracuse running back George Morris II in the backfield for a loss of two yards.
On the other side of the ball, true freshman RB Chris James pieced together his first 100-yard rushing performance of his 11-game career.
James registered 122 yards on 19 carries, including 71 second-half yards.
“After four or five carries, you get used to what the defense is trying to do. You learn to speed up or be more patient. I think it is a big part of the run game,” James said. “The offensive line dominated,” he continued. “Sometimes when I got the ball they made huge holes and I took advantage of it.”
Pitt head coach Paul Chryst did not provide any updates on the injured Conner, who suffered a blow to his hip. Defensive tackle Darryl Render (ankle) and Bradley (stinger) also left the game after getting roughed up.
For the first time in weeks, Chryst wore a slight grin on his face during post-game remarks, although the third-year Pitt coach was careful not to sport an all-out smile. His Panthers are still below .500 and must beat a 6-4 Miami squad that nearly knocked off undefeated Florida State several weeks back to become bowl-eligible.
Kickoff is set for 7:00 PM.