Syracuse hoping to spoil Pitt’s bowl hopes
PITTSBURGH (AP) — T.J. Clemmings and Matt Rotheram are college football survivors. Making it through five seasons during a period of unprecedented upheaval at Pittsburgh will do that.
Yet through all the change -- including four different head coaches (six if you count those who wore interim tags) -- there has been at least one constant for the senior offensive linemen: The Panthers have ended each of the last four years with a bowl game.
Extending their season into December will be difficult. Pitt (4-6, 2-4 ACC) needs to beat Syracuse (3-7, 1-5) on Saturday then back it up with a victory at Miami (Fla.) on Nov. 29.
“I’d love to get one more game and spend more time with my guys,” Clemmings said.
And the struggling Orange (3-7, 1-5) would love to make sure the Panthers spend December and January watching on TV.
“Not just beating Pitt, but being the spoilers,” Syracuse guard Omari Parker said. “It might be a bad way to look at it, and even though our season didn’t end the way we wanted it to end, we can still end ours on a good note. And hopefully that momentum will carry over to next season.”
It’s a notion that’s been tricky for the refugees from the now-defunct Big East. The Orange have struggled in coach Scott Shafer’s second season, having dropped seven of eight since a 2-0 start. Pitt’s fall has been just as precipitous. The Panthers had it rolling at 3-0 and were up 10 points on Iowa in Week 4 before it all crumbled.
Pitt’s only win in the last two months came on a Thursday night against Virginia Tech, though it’s done little to provide the program with a welcome jolt despite the best efforts of running back James Conner, who leads the ACC in rushing and needs two touchdowns to break Tony Dorsett’s school record of 22 scores in a season.
Conner is doing his best to remain upbeat. So are the guys blocking for him. Rotheram and Clemmings are part of a small class of 11 seniors that will play their final home game on Saturday. Rotheram believes Pitt is headed in the right direction under third-year coach Paul Chryst.
“Coach Chryst has brought a lot of stability to the program since I’ve been here, bringing guys along,” Rotheram said. “It’s tough some ways you can’t measure the progress wins and losses are measurable. That doesn’t mean your program is not growing. It doesn’t mean you’re not a better football team. That’s tough but we know that the program is growing and building we can feel that.”
Other things to look for as Pitt and Syracuse meet for the 59th straight year.
DEFENSIVE PRIDE: The Syracuse offense ranks near the bottom of the Bowl Subdivision. Not so the defense. Orange defenders have 23 sacks and 18 turnovers gained (11 fumble recoveries and seven interceptions) and are out to make a definitive statement in the final two games of the season.
“Our defense has a chance to be a Top 20 defense in the nation,” senior linebacker Cam Lynch said. “We’re 22nd right now. It puts a goal at hand and in front of us to shoot for.”
CLOSE GAMES: The last two games between the two schools have been decided by a single point. Pitt won 17-16 last year, with the Orange prevailing 14-13 in 2012, a byproduct of each program’s physical approach.
“They pride themselves on that, we pride ourselves on that,” Rotheram said. “Every year it’s been close and hopefully we find a way to win.”
WALKING WOUNDED: In its last game, Syracuse was missing a dozen players, including its top two quarterbacks and three offensive linemen. The Orange are coming off their second bye week of the season and can barely remember the first.
“We probably needed the bye week more than anybody in the country,” offensive guard Omari Parker said. “To play nine weeks in a row is outrageous. This is great to play somebody else out of a bye week.”
DOUBLE DUTY: Syracuse will likely start true freshman quarterback AJ Long, with redshirt freshman Mitch Kimble also seeing action.
YOUNG GUNS: While the Panthers will say goodbye to 11 seniors, they will rely heavily on underclassmen. Pitt has 81 freshmen and sophomores on the roster, including rising stars in Conner and wide receiver Tyler Boyd.
AP Sports Writer John Kekis in Syracuse, N.Y., contributed to this report.