Fresh from a bye week, Syracuse is ready to begin making amends for a season that so far has gone very wrong.
The first chance comes Friday night at home against Pittsburgh in a Big East game featuring two teams that will leave for the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.
The conference opener for the Orange (1-3) is a crucial game for coach Doug Marrone. Another loss like the 17-10 debacle at Minnesota two weeks ago and the Orange might just bid sayonara to those hopes and dreams of playing in the postseason for the second time in three years.
"We're a better football team than we were the last time we played," Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib said. "We know that we've been in every game so far. Those games we lost we found a way to beat ourselves. No team has outright beat us yet. If we clean up some of these small things, we're going to be a good team."
Among the areas that needed to be addressed during the off week were turnovers and penalties. Against the Golden Gophers, the Orange had four giveaways to bring the season total to 10 and were whistled for 10 penalties. Through four games, the Syracuse defense has produced only four turnovers (three interceptions and one fumble recovery), giving the Orange one of the worst turnover margins in the country (minus-1.5).
"Turnovers have hurt us," Marrone said. "I think that's the first way you put yourself in jeopardy of losing a game. We've done that consistently in the four games we've played. Everyone understands that if we can clean those things up — not that it's going to guarantee us a win — it will give us a much better opportunity."
The Orange will have to overcome a team that's won the last seven games in the long series, and the Panthers (2-2, 0-1 Big East) have been purring of late. After starting the season in dismal fashion — Pitt lost its opener, 31-17, to Youngstown State, which plays at the second level of Division I, and followed with a 34-10 setback at Big East foe Cincinnati — the Panthers have been impressive.
Pitt stunned then-No. 13 Virginia Tech 35-17, forcing the Hokies into four first-half turnovers while bullying them all over the field, then beat Gardner-Webb 55-10 two weeks ago. The Panthers produced a combined 1,163 yards of total offense in the two wins behind quarterback Tino Sunseri. The senior completed 71 percent of his passes (37 of 52) for 627 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception and ranks as the Big East's most efficient passer (15th nationally) with a166.80 rating.
The Pitt defense hasn't been too shabby, either. After failing to gain a turnover in the first two games, Pitt has registered seven — four interceptions and three fumble recoveries — during its modest winning streak.
"I think we really bought into the defense more the past two games," Pitt defensive back K'Waun Williams said. "We always trusted the process, but seeing the way it worked in our favor the past two games was really beneficial for us."
Marrone at least was happy that the Orange's rest came at an opportune time as he tries to fix the imperfections that have tarnished his fourth season.
"When you're struggling, a lot of people say, 'We've got to get back out there,'" Marrone said. "My philosophy has been when you're struggling, the player, in my opinion, is looking for answers. He wants to know, 'Why are we 1-3?' You have to identify those situations, which the bye week gives you the ability to do.
"Now, you can answer those questions — if we do this right, we can win. When the players look and they see that and they realize that, then you have a chance to get better."
The Orange figure to be better on the offensive line with the return of All-Big East left tackle Justin Pugh. He missed the first four games while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and couldn't stop smiling as he pondered his return.
"It's probably one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life," said Pugh, whose return will shift Sean Hickey over to the right side of the offensive line. "I think it's actually made me a better player. It's kind of given me a different perspective. I'm just ready to get out there.
"I'm ready to play."
Syracuse, which lost its opener by a point to Northwestern (42-41) and dropped its second game to Southern California (42-29) at MetLife Stadium, hasn't beaten a Football Bowl Subdivision team in nearly a year. Its lone victory this season came against FCS power Stony Brook, a hard-fought 28-17 triumph last month in the Carrier Dome.
The good news is that the Orange's slate is clean in the conference.
"We know we have to win at least five of the next eight games to guarantee we get a bowl game," Pugh said. "There's definitely a heightened sense of urgency, but you never want to put too much into a game.
"It's my first game back and I've never beaten Pitt, so I'm kind of a little amped for that. It's our playoffs now."
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