Pittsburgh knows this week’s game against Syracuse will be tougher than last week’s 55-0 rout of Austin Peay.

“The talent gets better; they get bigger; they get faster; they get stronger,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said of entering Atlantic Coast Conference play against the Orange today.

Syracuse is coming off a 31-6 loss to No. 12 North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

The key matchups between Pitt and Syracuse will come in the trenches. Pitt’s offensive line will have to contend with Syracuse’s new 3-3-5 defense, while Pitt’s defensive front will be looking to take advantage of a Syracuse offensive line that allowed seven sacks against North Carolina last week.

The Panthers showed off a rejuvenated running game against the Governors. Pitt scored six rushing touchdowns against Austin Peay, after scoring just 11 rushing touchdowns last season. The combination of new starters on the offensive line and injuries throughout the season to running backs A.J. Davis, Todd Sibley and Vincent Davis never allowed Pitt’s ground game to take off in 2019.

With the three running backs from last season currently healthy, and the addition of freshmen tailbacks Daniel Carter and Israel Abanikanda, running backs coach Andre Powell feels good about the Panthers’ backfield depth.

“We’ve got enough guys where I think we should be able to operate at a high level if we happen to lose a guy or two along the way with an injury,” Powell said.

“That’s an unselfish group of running backs, maybe too unselfish,” Narduzzi said. “I think they want to give everybody a turn. I’d like to have one war daddy back there and hand it to that guy 50 times.

“It’s going to come down to who’s running like their tail is on fire. That’s what we’re looking for and we’ll eventually find it. Vince was the guy who showed up last week, so he’ll start.”

The improved running game against Austin Peay was due in no small part to an offensive line that returned five starters this season, compared to just one returning starter last year.

Right guard Jake Kradel said gaining experience has helped the unit immensely.

“I think it’s improved tremendously,” Kradel said. “We’ve made a big emphasis on running off the ball and being more physical in the run game. Pass (protection), protecting Kenny, giving him time in the pocket to step up and make the plays he made on Saturday.

“Honestly, just having us all with experience from last year was huge for all five of us and I feel like we’re just going to keep getting better each week. That’s our goal.”

Pitt’s offense will have to know where All-American safety Andre Cisco is at all times. In nine games last year, Cisco notched five interceptions, five pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Against the Tar Heels, he returned a third-quarter interception 29 yards to set up an Orange field goal.

“He’s kind of like Paris Ford. He finds the ball,” Narduzzi said of Cisco. “He’ll play all over the place. He’ll have a good beat on what we do. We’ll have to change up what we do, try to stay away from him.”

The new-look Syracuse defense gave up only ten points in the first three quarters against North Carolina last week but wore down late. The Orange offense failed to get into a rhythm, going three-and-out on four consecutive second-half possessions, and a tired Orange defense allowed 21 unanswered fourth-quarter points.

The Syracuse offense stumbled last week against the Tar Heels, mustering just 202 yards of offense. Quarterback Tommy Devito was under pressure all game but ran the ball more than he did a season ago. Narduzzi says Devito running should not slow down the pass rush at all. In last year’s contest, Pitt sacked Syracuse quarterbacks nine times in a 27-20 victory.

Narduzzi said nothing in the past matters, only the game that will be played at noon on Saturday in Heinz Field.

“It’s not gonna be 55-0, I can promise you that,” Narduzzi said. “It’s gonna be a dog fight.”

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