Role reversal

Off to its best start in more than a decade, Syracuse is looking for another big win against Pitt Saturday.

Seven weeks into the college football season Syracuse finds itself in an unfamiliar position: A favorite to win a conference game.

Rewind six weeks and Pittsburgh – SU’s foe for Homecoming – was king of the conference. The Panthers were preseason favorites to win the Big East and claim the coveted automatic qualifying bid to a BCS game. Pitt was ranked No. 15 in the country and returned sophomore phenom running back Dion Lewis, the reigning Big East Offensive Player of the Year.

All that preseason hype for the Panthers didn’t even make it through the opening day. Pitt fell to non-BCS foe – but constant BCS buster – Utah in the first game of the season and has been struggling to keep its head above water ever since.

First year starting quarterback Tino Sunseri has struggled in the early going for the Panthers, and Lewis has yet to find the groove that made him so deadly as a freshman.

Meanwhile, after and early season beat down at the hands of the Washington Huskies, Syracuse has rebounded to post it’s best start in more than a decade. The Orange made their biggest statement of the young season last week on the road against then 3-1 South Florida. Now at 4-1 and 1-0 in the Big East, SU sits tied atop the conference standings, while at 2-3 (0-0) the Panthers are trying to avoid playing catch up.

“Obviously we had a great start to the Big East, and we’re just trying to keep it rolling regardless of who we’re playing,” SU quarterback Ryan Nassib said. “Pitt is an extremely physical and gifted team, and I think we just have to come out with our hard hats like every week and just do our thing.”

Nassib and the Orange are no strangers to Pitt’s physicality. The Panthers have dominated the recent history with the Cuse, winning seven of the past eight matchups, including a 37-10 route in Pittsburgh last year.

Though senior running back Delone Carter had a great game against the Panthers last year, rushing for 143 on 17 carries, the rest of the offense didn’t fare so well. Pitt’s defense recorded six sacks and forced three interceptions, while holding the Orange to 285 yards of total offense.

Having better execution – especially in the turnover department – is something that SU head coach Doug Marrone has been preaching to his players all week.

“It’s going to be a physical game. We are going to have to be a very physical football team,” Marrone said. “The most physical team is going to win this game.

“But it goes back to the same thing. We talk to our players and our team all the time, the first thing you look at from a statistic standpoint is just turnovers. You can’t turn the ball over.”

On the defensive side of the ball, the Orange are coming off their most dominant performance of the year by far. Syracuse held the Bulls without an offensive touchdown, and the defense has a lot of what junior defensive end Chandler Jones calls “swagger.” Jones was quick to point out that swagger meant the Orange are confident, and that it should not be confused with being cocky.

“(We have) a lot of confidence, but I feel that consistency is huge,” he said. “Last week we did a good job and South Florida didn’t score on the defense. It’s our job to be consistent and make sure that Pitt doesn’t score on us, so that’ll be a huge statement for the Syracuse defense.”

Besides the battle for conference supremacy, there is another battle that will be taking place on the field Saturday – the battle for family bragging rights. Senior tight end Jose Cruz will be going head to head with Pittsburgh sophomore tight end Mike Cruz, his little brother.

The elder Cruz said the two have talked this week, but they haven’t talked much about the game. He said they’re both competitive and they joke around back and forth, but pretty much leave football out of the discussion. As for the rest of the family, that’s a different story.

“I know that there’s some sitting on my side and I think he got four tickets, so he’s got a couple sitting on his,” Cruz said. (I heard) there’s going to be some switching at halftime and stuff like that, so it’ll be interesting.”

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