SYRACUSE, N.Y. --- There's no easy way to describe the Syracuse Orange football team. Through the first three weeks of the regular season, SU depended on its air-it-out offensive that ranked second in the country in passing yards. The strategy led to a 1-2 record. Since then, the Orange defense has allowed an average of 15 points while the offense has struggled averaging just 14. In those games, SU is 1-1 including Friday night's 14-13 victory in its Big East Conference opener against the visiting Pittsburgh Panthers.
"When you play the University of Pittsburgh, at least from my standpoint, you better be ready to play," said SU head coach Doug Marrone, who improved to 4-1 after a bye week. "I thought our kids did a nice job and their kids did a hell of a job. We just made a couple of more plays and came out on the better end of the stick."
Despite Marrone's frustration level with the consistency of his team -- "We can enjoy ourselves tonight but we have a lot to work on and we need to get back to work," said Marrone -- SU did something against Pitt it hadn't all season (and you could say most of last season too) and the result was a much-needed victory.
That something was making big plays.
The first was a 52-yard first-quarter score by sophomore linebacker Dyshawn Davis, who scooped up a fumbled by Pitt tight end Drew Carswell and followed a slew of blocker into the end zone. The touchdown, which helped SU earn a 14-0 lead with about a minute to go in the first, was setup by a solid tackle and strip by safety Jeremi Wilkes, who hit Carswell shortly after he caught a two-yard pass from quarterback Tino Sunseri.
"Jeremi Wilkes did a good job of stripping it and I saw the ball on the ground," said Davis. "My eyes got big and I knew I had to get in the end zone. I had my teammates in front of me leading the way, all I had to do was follow them and I was in the end zone."
After Pitt trimmed Syracuse's lead to 14-7 with a one-yard second-quarter rushing touchdown by senior tailback Ray Graham, the Orange answered with a 70-yard march that ended with quarterback Ryan Nassib throwing a poor fade pass that was intercepted in the Panther end zone by Pitt's junior defensive back K'Waun Williams.
Nassib's poor pass (and boy was it bad) wasn't the big play of the 12-play drive that should of ended with SU leading 21-7. It was the 18-yard pass Nassib threw to junior wide receiver Jarrod West, which three plays earlier, converted a 4th-and-9 from Pitt's 33-yard line.
The drive's end result wasn't good, however, two things happened on the possession that hadn't happened earlier in the year: 1) Marrone made a gutsy call to go for it on 4th-and-long inside the opponent's territory -- in similar situations this season he's elected to punt; 2) Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett made a good play call and his players -- Nassib and West -- executed.
SU's biggest plays came in the perfect time of a ball game -- the fourth quarter.
For two hours, SU's defense had bent but not broken against the ground-and-pound Pitt offense. After being handed a 14-point deficit, the Panthers slowly trimmed the margin to one point (14-13) as in their next seven offensive possessions they either started or drove inside Orange territory.
The result was Graham's one-yard touchdown and two field goals by Kevin Harper, who also missed one. However, despite its success (Pitt out gained Syracuse 346 to 305 in total yards) it was a handful of big plays by SU's defense that kept the Panthers out of the end zone and eventually helped snap a seven-game losing streak to Pitt.
Two important plays were sacks made by SU senior defense end Brandon Sharpe. The first came early in the fourth and helped halt a Pitt drive that moved to the Orange 29-yard line but came away with zero points.
Sharpe's sack, his third of a collegiate-best four, came on 3rd-and-20 and pushed the Panthers out of field goal range and forced a punt.
His second big sack came on Pitt's final offensive drive which moved all the way down to the SU 17-yard line. Facing a 1st-and-10, and seemingly in great position to setup a go-ahead field goal, Pitt was again backed up by Sharpe, who surged his way through the Pitt line and forced a 15-yard intentional-grounding penalty on Sunseri.
A play later, SU sophomore cornerback Brandon Reddish made a big play of his own sacking Sunseri for a nine-yard loss. The sack, setup by a nicely designed corner blitz, again pushed the Panthers out of field goal range and forced a punt with about five minutes remaining.
From there, the Orange offense finished the job collecting three first downs that helped them run out the game clock.
As much as Marrone would like his team to find constancy, the fact is SU turned its season on its head Friday. Instead of giving up or not making plays at important times, the Orange did the opposite and the result was a victory in their most important game of the season.
In football, its not always how many positive plays you make that determines a win from a loss -- because Syracuse has had a lot of positive plays this season. Sometimes, its the right ones at the right times. And that's exactly what SU did against Pitt.
Sharpe's career day
As mentioned, Syracuse senior defensive end Brandon Sharpe (6'1, 253 pounds) was the MVP of Friday's victory. All night, Sharpe dominated Pitts' left tackle Cory King (or whomever he was matched up against) and the effort was rewarded with a collegiate-best four sacks, the second-highest single-game total in program history.
Sharpe also recorded seven solo tackles, including six for a loss, a total that also ranks second in program history.
"I felt like the whole D-line got into a grove," said Sharpe after the game. "The coaches did a good job of helping us out on the sideline so we just went out there and played with passion and played our game."
Coach Marrone not only credited Sharpe for his effort but the whole defensive line.
"If one player plays very well, that means a lot of other people are doing something well on that defensive line and front seven," said Marrone. "Those guys are playing hard."
Sharpe now leads Syracuse's defense with 5 1/2 sacks.
Sophomore tailback Adonis Ameen-Moore made a debut of sorts Friday. For the first time this season the 5'11, 229-pound sophomore carried the ball. The result was a one-yard touchdown run on his first carry of the '12 campaign and a critical two-yard gain on a 3rd-and-1 situation late in the fourth quarter.
The first play helped give SU an early 7-0 advantage while the second cemented Syracuse's victory, as it allowed the Orange to run the remaining time of the game clock.
After the game, Ameen-Moore said it felt great to get back into the offensive mix and his new role as the Orange's short-yardage back is easy to gear up for.
"For a running back, if somebody tells you can just go in and score a touchdown that's defiantly going to be fun," said Ameen-Moore. "That's going to make me get turned up through the whole game. I need to be ready, tuned into everything, so I know just in case we get down there I am ready to go score."
Ameen-Moore finished the game with five carries for 14-cirtical yards.
Bad Ryan Nassib
For the second game in a row, Orange senior quarter back Ryan Nassib didn't play up to his potential. SU's signal caller finished 19-for-30 with 185 passing yards, zero touchdowns and one interception. (Against Minnesota, Nassib was 21-for-31 with 232 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.)
At times, Nassib looked sharp: He completed all four of his passes for 51 yards on the Orange's first offensive drive that led to a touchdown; he also was 7-for-8 on the second-quarter drive which marched down to Pitt's nine-yard line but ended on an interception.
At times, he looked terrible: He got lucky on a pass near midfield that deflected off the helmet of a Pitt linebacker and ended in the hands of wide receiver Marcus Sales; And again, what was up with that awful fade pass that was picked off in the end zone?
Regardless, Syracuse can take away that in its last two games where its quarterback hasn't been great it stayed close in one and won the other.
Whenever slashback Ashton Broyld doesn't play in a game for Syracuse its noteworthy. And Friday, the 6'4, 229-pound freshman didn't see any action, not even has a decoy.
When asked about the absence of Broyld after the game, Marrone replied.
"Our philosophy is to play the best players that give us the best chance to win. That’s not only Ashton Broyld, that’s a lot of other players on this team."
The Syracuse football schedule features the Orange traveling to Piscataway, NJ to play the No. 22-ranked Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Kickoff is schedule for noon ET and will be broadcasted on the Big East Network.