Coach Dino Babers is still waiting for that breakthrough, when his Syracuse Orange put everything together for more than a game or two. They've shown that his system can work wonders, but only in fits and spurts.
There was the upset of No. 17 Virginia Tech at home last October and an impressive offensive show the next week in a victory at Boston College. Those wins didn't spur any sort of momentum, however, because in the following game quarterback Eric Dungey was injured. Hit hard in the helmet area early at Clemson, Dungey was lost for the season and the Orange dropped their final four games.
Nearly halfway through this year, Syracuse (2-3, 0-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) is still struggling to find any sort of consistency. The Orange, who host longtime rival Pittsburgh (2-3, 0-1 ACC) on Saturday, have lost two straight road games and are very aware their record could be much different.
"It stings," senior wideout Erv Philips said Tuesday. "It's the little things in the game that we need to change. You never know what could happen if we did."
Just over a week ago, a struggling LSU took a 14-3 halftime lead over the Orange and held on for a 35-26 victory to stay ranked at No. 25.
Last Saturday at North Carolina State, the Wolfpack scored on five straight possessions at the outset to lead 26-7 at the break, then staved off a late Syracuse rally to win 33-25 and crack the AP Top 25 .
Too little, too late, and too much given up too early in each loss.
"We're being inconsistent in the first half," said Babers, in his second year at Syracuse. "Our mistakes are keeping us from functioning at that level that we need to function at."
The other setback was 30-23 at home to Middle Tennessee , which rallied in the fourth quarter and held on. Syracuse drove deep into Middle Tennessee territory in the final minute of the game before failing by inches to convert on a fourth-and-15 play.
Mistakes were front and center against the Wolfpack. The Orange were called for 12 penalties for 93 yards, one of which nullified a touchdown catch by Steve Ishmael.
"That (penalty) was big for us, for our momentum," said Philips, who broke a school and ACC record with 17 catches for a career-high 188 yards receiving in the game. "We need attention to detail."
The Orange's passing game remains potent with Dungey repeatedly finding Philips and Ishmael open in Syracuse's uptempo attack. Ishmael has eclipsed 100 yards receiving in every game and leads the nation with 10.2 catches per game while Philips is third at 8.8. The two have a combined 95 catches for 1,052 yards and four touchdowns (two apiece).
"We just put in a lot of work in the offseason," Philips said. "Of course we want to see each other do good. I just want to be one of the best receivers in my conference. I'm not really too focused on goals. We need wins, and accolades will come with that."
What's lacking offensively is the absence of a running game at a school renowned for star tailbacks - Jim Brown, Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis, Floyd Little, Jim Nance, and Larry Csonka foremost among them. The Orange are ranked 81st nationally in rushing, averaging 3.75 yards per carry and 143.2 yards per game.
Dungey, a dual threat with a knack for picking his spots to take off, is the leader at 277 yards (4.1 per carry) with seven TDs, while junior Dontae Strickland is the leading tailback with 51 carries for 140 yards (2.7 per carry) and three scores. Speedy sophomore Moe Neal has shown flashes of brilliance - the first carry of his college career was a 49-yard touchdown and he broke a 71-yard run against Central Michigan - but he's had few touches this season while playing several positions.
The depth chart for Pitt has one freshman and four redshirt freshmen listed on the two-deep for the offensive line as Babers continues to deal with injuries.
"The guys up front are doing the best they can," Philips said. "We just have to get better."
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