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A stout defense and special teams units kept Syracuse early in Saturday’s game, but Pittsburgh rode quarterback Kenny Pickett to a big second half.
In the end, the Panthers (2-0, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) defeated Syracuse (0-2, 0-2) by two scores, 21-10. Syracuse enters its first home game preparation week having faced the same problems against Pitt that plagued the team in its game against North Carolina last week.
Here are three takeaways from the game:
With 10:33 left in the second quarter, Rex Culpepper took the snap in the shotgun, twirled it once, then launched a touch pass down the sideline to Taj Harris, who tiptoed all the way into the endzone for his first touchdown of the season.
Culpepper’s touchdown — Syracuse’s first of the season — came two plays after quarterback Tommy DeVito got knocked out of the game by Pittsburgh’s fourth sack of the half. DeVito hunched over on one knee and received medical attention from two trainers during the 69-yard score.
DeVito was ineffective through the air on Saturday but found some success on read-option keepers. On more traditional dropbacks, the pocket either collapsed too quickly, or he held onto the ball too long.
DeVito eventually took a seat on the bench, and Culpepper returned to the game. In Culpepper’s next drive, Syracuse went three-and-out, prompting DeVito to replace him in the second half.
In the end, DeVito finished nine-for-15 with 32 yards and an interception, as well as seven sacks. Culpepper, meanwhile, went four-for-nine for 88 yards and a score.
Defense does its job again
For the second straight week, Syracuse’s 3-3-5 defense did enough for the Orange to upset a ranked opponent. SU made Pitt grind out every series, often forcing Pickett into tough third-and-longs.
When the Panthers were driving in the third quarter looking to extend their 14-10 lead, linebacker Mikel Jones undercut a crossing route and picked Pickett off inside the redzone. On the play, defensive end Cody Roscoe stunted from the outside into the middle and rushed Pickett untouched, forcing a hurried throw.
But the offense continued to let the defense down. In its first two games, Syracuse has had nine drives within the opponent’s 40-yard line and has only scored nine points.
Down 21-10 in the fourth, Jawhar Jordan fumbled on a third-and-11, giving Pitt the ball in plus territory. But the Orange’s defense came up big again, forcing a three-and-out. On third down, cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu made a strong open field tackle on Jared Wayne, forcing a field goal attempt that Alex Kessman missed wide left.
In total, SU held Pitt to just 2.9 yards per rush, and 4.28 yards per play overall, plus two forced turnovers.
Nykeim Johnson with the burners
For the second straight game, Nykeim Johnson showed he can break big plays in the return game.
Against North Carolina, he ran a punt back to the house, but it didn’t count because of a block in the back. On Saturday, he recorded 25 yards on his two punt returns that counted, impressing again.
In the first quarter, Babers showed his confidence in Johnson by accepting an illegal formation penalty on Pitt, forcing the Panthers to re-kick the punt. It paid off, as Johnson scampered between Pitt’s defenders and SU’s blockers for 17 yards, into Panthers territory.
Later in the game, Johnson spun around a gunner’s arm tackle for another solid return, this one for eight.
Last year, Sean Riley ranked third in the conference and 16th nationally with 9.3 yards per punt return but didn’t return any for touchdowns. It’s still early in the season, but Johnson appears to be an improvement from Riley in the return game. He’s averaging 14.5 yards per punt return overall.
Though Johnson did initially muff both the first and second punts, he quickly recovered. If his hands sure up, Johnson has the potential to be a reliable special teams contributor.
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