No. 14 Pitt tries to avoid Syracuse stumble

Nov 6, 2009 - 3:04 PM By ALAN ROBINSON AP Sports Writer

PITTSBURGH(AP) -- Notre Dame, then West Virginia, with a possible Big East-deciding game against Cincinnati to follow.

No. 14 Pittsburgh hasn't met a Top 25 opponent all season, but the Panthers will end the season by playing nothing but teams that are ranked or are rivals.

First, there's Syracuse to deal with on Saturday, and the Panthers realize their remaining games won't mean nearly as much if they don't get past the Orange.

With so much to play for, the Panthers (7-1, 4-0 in Big East) might be tempted to forget they were eight points down to Syracuse last season before rallying to win 34-24. Or that neither No. 4 Cincinnati nor No. 11 Penn State was able to run all over Syracuse.

The Orange (3-5, 0-3) may be in last place in the Big East, but records and rankings often matter very little when they play Pitt. The Panthers beat them 20-17 at home two years ago, and Pitt looked ready to be upset last season before outscoring Syracuse 18-0 in the fourth quarter.

Three difficult games to end the season? Pitt fullback Henry Hynoski said it's more like four.

"These last four games can make us or break us, and we have a tough one to start out against Syracuse," Hynoski said. "So the main thing for us is to not look ahead to next week. We just have to stay focused on Syracuse."

Or what's left of Syracuse. It was a tough week for the Orange even before they left for Pittsburgh, where they haven't won since 2001.

Wide receiver Mike Williams, their leading receiver and top playmaker, quit the team on Monday. A day later, tailback Antwon Bailey, defensive end Torrey Ball and guard Andrew Tiller were suspended for violating team rules and defensive end Jared Kimmel was lost to knee surgery.

Beating a Pitt team that's off to the school's best start in 27 years would be difficult enough on the road, but doing so with a depleted cast will be considerably harder.

"At the beginning of the year, people said, 'Where are all the Big East teams in the top 20?"' Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said. "We just played the No. 4 team in the country (Cincinnati) and we're getting ready to play the 14th team in the country."

The No. 4 rusher, too.

Pitt freshman Dion Lewis is averaging 128.6 yards per game, and will be a major challenge even for the Big East's best rushing defense (88.9 yards a game) because the Orange also must deal with quarterback Bill Stull and Pitt's deep group of receivers. Stull is third nationally in passing efficiency, while tight end Dorin Dickerson is tied for second with nine touchdown catches.

At least Syracuse quarterback Greg Paulus won't have to listen to all the jeering from his home fans while he's in Pittsburgh. Marrone was so upset with the booing of Paulus during the 28-7 loss to Cincinnati that he read a statement this week supporting him.

Paulus is the former Duke point guard who is using his final season of college eligibility to return to football.

"When he's in the game, it's because we believe he gives us the best chance to win," Marrone said. "I truly thank him for being here."

However, Paulus' inconsistency (10 TD passes, 11 interceptions) means he's not always been in games at the end, as Marrone sometimes goes to backup Ryan Nassib.

"Things change," Paulus said, referring to the shifting personnel around him. "It's about sticking together. We'll be ready to go."

Last year's scare in Syracuse might be enough to prevent Pitt from looking ahead to its prime-time game against No. 19 Notre Dame next weekend.

"They're a team that's a lot better than their record shows," Pitt linebacker Adam Gunn said. "A win against Pitt would definitely make their season, so we're not going to give them a chance to ruin our season or spark theirs. We want to be Big East champs, and we have to get past Syracuse to stay on track for that."






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