Syracuse tries to save season in finale at Pittsburgh

A struggling Syracuse football team will try to salvage what remains of the 2011 season when it faces Pittsburgh on Saturday at noon.

The Orange (5-6), losers of four straight, have been one win away from bowl eligibility for more than a month. But even a win against the Panthers (5-6) won’t guarantee Syracuse its first back-to-back bowl appearances since 1998-99.

Louisville, Cincinnati, West Virginia, Rutgers and Notre Dame have already locked up five of six Big East bowl tie-ins. South Florida, UConn and Pitt—all 5-6—could also become eligible before the weekend is out.

On Oct. 21, Syracuse was sitting pretty at 5-2 after a 49-23 thrashing of No. 15-ranked West Virginia. It began to unravel from there. Syracuse lost 27-10 at Louisville eight days later, then fell to Paul Pasqualoni’s UConn Huskies 28-21 in a turnover fest. South Florida easily handled the Orange 37-17 and Cincinnati pulled away in the second half last week to win 30-13.

“Obviously, it’s an unfortunate situation that we’re in. But we have another game left,” said head coach Doug Marrone in a press conference on Monday. “We got ourselves into this situation, and now we have to dig our way out of it. There’s no substitute like hard work and good leadership, and I promise you that I will do everything in my power to get this thing corrected.”

Like the Orange, Pitt had a chance to become bowl eligible last week. It led West Virginia 20-7 in the third quarter, but lost 21-20. Head coach Todd Graham is trying to avoid a losing season in his first year at the helm in Pittsburgh. The team finished last year 8-5 and was picked to finish second in the BIG EAST preseason poll.

Pitt leads the all-time series with Syracuse 33-30-3. The Panthers have won six straight, including last year’s 45-14 win. A win over Pittsburgh on Saturday would be Syracuse’s first since 2004, when Pasqualoni led the squad.

Marrone said he and the coaching staff are trying to coax the best performance out of his players for the game.

“I think more of our concern right now is to make sure that we’re in the right state of mind in what we’re doing,” said Marrone. “As we go through the week, obviously we’ll putting forth the effort to make sure that we understand what we have to do to (win).”

What to watch on offense: The Panthers offense averages 21.5 points per game. Junior Quarterback Tino Sunseri has thrown as many touchdowns (nine) as interceptions and has completed 62.9 percent of his passes and 2,174 yards—a bit off his 2,572-yard and 64.5-completion percentage last year.

Meanwhile, preseason all-conference running back Ray Graham, a junior, has nine touchdowns and 958 yards on the ground. He’s averaging 5.8 yards per carry.

“They return a lot of players who we played against last year,” Marrone said. “Offensively, they have weapons and they’re explosive at times. It’s a high octane, fast-paced type offense, so we’re going to have to be ready.”

Sunseri had one of the best games of his career in last year’s win over the Orange, throwing for 266 yards and four touchdowns.

What to watch on defense: Pitt is third in the league in sacks with 36, just two behind co-leaders South Florida and Cincinnati. Sophomore defensive lineman Aaron Donald has 10 sacks and senior Brandon Lindsey has 7.5.

Max Gruder, a senior linebacker, is second in the league with 98 tackles.

The game will be televised on ESPN2.

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Dan Brannigan

About Dan Brannigan

Dan is currently the editor of Common Ground magazine for Community Associations Institute (CAI) where he has won an Association Media & Publishing award for newswriting. Dan has also won a New England Press Association award while working for the The Inquirer and Mirror in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where he grew up. Dan is a 2005 Syracuse University graduate. Follow him on Twitter @djbranni.
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