Ziniu Chen | Staff PhotographerFootball
ENTRENCHED: SU defense swallows up Pittsburgh playmakers in 14-13 win
The sequence played out repeatedly for more than 34 minutes.
Pittsburgh running back Ray Graham danced around before the Syracuse defensive line swallowed him up. His quarterback, Tino Sunseri, dropped back only to have the pocket collapse on him immediately.
Each time, the sequence ended with a horde of Orange defenders surrounding the latest playmaker in the backfield, sharing emphatic fist pumps and urging on the crowd.
“I felt like the whole D-line was getting into a groove,” SU defensive end Brandon Sharpe said. “The coaches, they did a good job of amping us up on the sidelines so we just went out there and played with our passion and played our game.”
Sharpe and his fellow linemen spearheaded a dominant effort by the Syracuse (2-3, 1-0 Big East) defense that sparked the team to a 14-13 victory over Pittsburgh (2-3, 0-2) in front of 40,394 in the Carrier Dome on Friday night. The Orange defensive front held the Panthers to a measly 27 yards on 37 carries, battering Sunseri for five sacks while bottling up Graham in the backfield.
That combination helped SU overcome a nine-minute difference in time of possession and the offense’s failure to score in the final three quarters of the game to earn its first win over a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent since last October.
“Everybody in the locker room was hungry to come out and play today,” quarterback Ryan Nassib said. “Offensively we wish we could have done a little bit better, but the defense played like ravaged dogs.”
The unit played with that hunger and passion from the start on Friday night.
Pittsburgh’s first series ended in a little more than two minutes. The Panthers ran three plays for three yards before punter Matt Yoklic trotted onto the field.
Graham took a handoff on the first play, but he was quickly stuffed for no gain by defensive end Markus Pierce-Brewster and a host of other SU defenders. Then Sharpe burst off the edge and into the backfield to pull Sunseri down for a nine-yard loss. The defense and Carrier Dome came to life on third-and-19, and Sunseri dumped it off to Devin Street as Sharpe nearly grabbed him again.
“This season we’ve kind of been lacking with the pressure, so that’s what we focused on as a D-line as individuals together even without the coaches,” SU defensive tackle Deon Goggins said. “We talked about that amongst ourselves all week and we made it happen tonight, and we plan to continue it for the rest of the season.”
Nearly three minutes after Pittsburgh’s three-and-out, Syracuse executed a near-flawless eight-play, 70-yard drive down the field to move ahead 7-0. But the offensive production disappeared for the remainder of the game, as Nassib and his unit failed to score again in the final 55 minutes of the game.
Whether Syracuse won or lost its Big East opener would be up to the defense.
The unit rose to the occasion, scoring a touchdown when linebacker Dyshawn Davis scooped up a fumble and returned it 52 yards to push the Orange ahead 14-0 with just more than a minute to play in the first quarter.
And Sharpe and his teammates terrorized the Pittsburgh offensive line all night. Sharpe finished with four sacks and six tackles for loss while six other defensive linemen made stops in the game, contributing to holding Graham to 57 yards on 24 carries.
“You look at what we did today against this Pittsburgh team and the run game,” head coach Doug Marrone said. “I think that’s difficult to do and our kids were up for that challenge.”
The defensive line was up for one more challenge with the game on the line late in the fourth quarter.
Sunseri led the Panthers down to the SU 17 yard line with three completions for 54 yards. Pittsburgh was one big play away from jumping ahead and stealing a win from the Orange in the Carrier Dome.
But Sharpe and the line came through and thwarted the drive. He and Goggins burst into the backfield and forced Sunseri to heave the ball out of bounds short of the line of scrimmage, leading to a 15-yard intentional grounding penalty.
A nine-yard sack by cornerback Brandon Reddish set up third-and-34 on the 41, and an incomplete pass and punt gave SU the ball with its one-point lead still intact.
For the final five minutes, the unit could rest as the offense ran out the clock to seal a win defined by its masterful play in the trenches.
“We were just in each others’ heads and having each others’ backs out there, and we made it happen,” Goggins said.
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