SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) Syracuse nose tackle Anthony Perkins exuded a quiet confidence as he spoke about what it’s like to wear Orange these days and sit atop the Big East.
“We would like to keep this streak rolling, if you can call it a streak,” Perkins said. “We want to keep winning. It feels good. It feels great to go out to practice everyday, and you can see the excitement in guys’ eyes. We’re trying to turn everything around here. I don’t want to blow our heads up or nothing. I just want to stay humble and stay hungry.”
Syracuse (4-1, 1-0 Big East), which has struggled for the past five seasons, carries a three-game winning streak into the Carrier Dome on Saturday when it hosts Pittsburgh (2-3). It’s the conference opener for the preseason favorite to win the league, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for the Panthers. They’re coming off a 23-17 loss at Notre Dame, and a fresh start is always nice.
“I’ve done it before where you put a drape up over the first half of the season. I’ve done all of that stuff,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “This is a huge week for us. Syracuse right now is playing with a lot of confidence. We are making some strides, but not as fast as what anybody would like. We need to go out there and find a way to get better and improve over what we did last week.”
Syracuse has built most of its solid record on wins over two FCS teams and another over one of the worst FBS teams in the nation – Akron (0-6). The Orange suffered their only loss at Washington in September, but last week’s 13-9 win at South Florida was an eye-opener because Syracuse was 0-5 against the Bulls and won on the road, scoring the winning points with an impressive drive in the fourth quarter.
Tailbacks Delone Carter and Antwon Bailey carried most of the load during that decisive 98-yard march, and the Panthers know what awaits. They should be pumped for the challenge because they’ve also beaten Syracuse five straight times and the Pitt defense ranks 13th in the nation against the run, allowing just 95 yards a game.
“They’re pretty similar to our offense. They’re very physical,” Pitt linebacker Max Gruder said. “No. 3 (Carter), he’s even bigger than he was last year, and he’s very physical. They’ve scored some points and rolled up some yardage this season, so it’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
Carter, a bruising inside runner averaging 104 yards a game, and Bailey, a patient, quick tailback and terrific receiver, are a dilemma for defenses. Last week, they accounted for 234 of Syracuse’s 307 yards of total offense.
“Having those two guys is great. They are dynamic football players,” Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib said. “Their games are definitely a little bit different, but having them both in your backfield with different skills is a big threat to opposing defenses because they’ve got to game-plan against two backs and have to do different things for whoever is in there.”
Pitt’s tailback tandem of Ray Graham and Dion Lewis presents all sorts of problems, too. Graham leads the Big East with 207 all-purpose yards per game and Lewis ran for 1,799 yards as a freshman last season.
“We’re going to need them both,” Wannstedt said. “The plan is to use them both. I think that we want to get them both more carries, ideally.”
Lewis, who missed one game with a shoulder injury, has just 206 yards rushing on 60 carries and doesn’t have a 100-yard game this season after gaining at least 110 yards in each of his final eight games last year.
“They’re both really good backs. They’re both very similar,” Syracuse linebacker Doug Hogue said. “That’s a challenging offense. This week is going to put it to the test, see who’s going to out-hit who.”
Both teams expect a bruising game.
“We know from years past the physicality of Pitt,” Nassib said. “We’ve just got to really come in there hard-nosed and get ready for a dogfight.”
“Coach had physical signs all around the building this week,” said Pitt defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who leads the conference with 1.6 tackles for loss per game. “We have to be ready for a tough battle from the start. We like to think we’re a physical team, too, so it’s going to be interesting to see how well we match up with them and what they’ll do to try to stop us.”