Orange Watch: Already crunch time in ACC for Syracuse football

Syracuse is just 1-9 against Pittsburgh in the last 10 meetings between the teams
Syracuse is just 1-9 against Pittsburgh in the last 10 meetings between the teams

Item: Following back-to-back losses on the road, two games in which the Orange dug a first half hole too large to eventually afford enough time to steal a win late, it’s back to the Dome over Homecoming Weekend to face Pittsburgh Saturday afternoon (12:30 p.m. ET / ACC RSNs), a must-win conference game at home needed to keep bowl game thoughts intact, facing a longtime rival that put up 76 points (still mind-boggling, to us) against SU just over 10 months ago in last season’s finale.

Here we are already approaching game six, the approximate halfway point of this season with Syracuse (2-3, 0-1) meeting its most familiar historical opponent (73rd game dating back to 1916), Pittsburgh (2-3, 0-1), two pretty evenly matched teams, though the ‘Cuse was slight early week betting line favorites, with much riding on winning this game for both teams thinking about their shot at playing in the postseason.

This point of the season also represents the tail end of the, “between games four and six” initial proclamation of head coach Dino Babers as a timeline for the hitting-on-all-cylinders execution of his fast paced offensive scheme during the course of his second season, something he rightfully corrected during pre-season camp when he spoke of the different level (lack) of depth at SU in just two years plus of recruiting while facing ACC completion, as compared to his previous stops coaching at the FCS level and then the MAC.

So far the Orange offense has been almost exclusively centered on Eric Dungey passing, and Steve Ishmael and Erv Phillips catching, their respective paths into the school and conference record books, as the running game struggles behind a young and still learning and growing offensive line.

» Related: Dino Babers is not a magician, Syracuse football still needs time

Dungey’s the third active leader in the ACC in career yards through the air (5414 in 22 games), and Ishmael (10.2 rpg) and Phillips (8.8 rpg) form the top receiving corps among all FBS schools, statistically ranking first and third respectively while combining for a whopping 95 catches.

Coming off Phillips magnificent record-setting 17 catch game versus N.C. State, the most ever in the ACC and SU history, moving past Art Monk’s 40 year mark of 14 receptions in 1977 which both Phillips and Ishmael had already shared,, all accomplished by game five of Babers second season, so there’s plenty to be said about those offensive achievements.

But the records come second to the standings, and the inexcusable home loss to C-USA member Middle Tennessee State (now 2-3 after an 18 point defeat at Florida Atlantic last week) has put the Orange in need of protecting Dome turf the rest of the way, and toppling someone in the league on the road as a likely underdog.

“We need to get better as a team,” Babers said after the road defeat at N.C. State last weekend. “Part of our team is really, really old and the other part of our team is really, really young, and we’ve got to find a way to balance that out, especially during different parts of the games.”

“In the last two weeks you put it together and you see some of the young people make some mistakes and maybe go (against) older people playing,” Babers continued. “There’s got to be a balance. We need our young people to come along, we can’t play (fight) with one hand behind your back. We need the old people to play, we need the young people to play, we’re a family, we don’t single people out, and we need everybody to win.”

While there won’t be a FBS record of 137 points scored by the two teams this time around, it will be interesting to see how SU ends up over/under its 29 points per game average against its four FBS opponents, versus a Pitt team it’s only beaten once the last 10 times they’ve played.

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About Brad Bierman 848 Articles
Now in his sixth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.