Pitt defense stonewalls Syracuse in gritty ACC victory

Despite all the dark moments of October, Pitt’s dominance of Syracuse on Saturday in its 19-9 victory was not unexpected.

After all, the 22nd-ranked Orange (6-3, 3-2 ACC) haven’t won in Pittsburgh since 2001, the year the stadium formerly known as Heinz Field opened.

Pitt (5-4, 2-3) wins so often in this series — the victory count stands at nine of the past 10 — it doesn’t matter if the defense allows nine points or 61. (Remember that 76-61 shootout in 2016?)

“Every year I’ve been here at Pitt, I got a chance to do a little trash-talking,” said linebacker and Syracuse native SirVocea Dennis. “This is my fourth time, fourth win against Syracuse. I don’t really need to do any more trash-talking.”

What is significant about this roller-coaster stretch of games — two up, three down since Oct. 1 — is the lesson learned and what it might mean over the final three games.

“You learn about who you are, who your team is and you learn how to get better,” said quarterback Kedon Slovis, who finally displayed the accuracy (16 of 23, 69.5%) he was known for at USC.

“As a whole, we learned that we have a tough football team and a group of guys who love the game.”

Is that enough to carry Pitt to an 8-4 regular-season record that is probably the only finish that could erase some of the hurt from a 4-4 start?

Dennis has a good feeling about the possibilities.

“(The victory) definitely lets the guys know if we really lock in on the details and the gameplan and really know what we want to do, we can do anything,” he said.

For most of game — played out on an unseasonably warm November day in front of an announced crowd of 50,888 — Pitt’s defense smothered redshirt freshman quarterback Carlos Del Rio-Wilson, sacking him six times in his first career start. He replaced Garrett Shrader, who is nursing an unspecified injury.

While Syracuse totaled only 145 yards on offense and failed to convert 11 of 14 third downs, running back Sean Tucker managed only 19 yards on 10 carries after he had amassed 758 in his first eight games. Tucker is considered one of the ACC’s best running backs, but he is averaging barely 2 yards per carry in his past two games against Pitt.

Speaking of running backs, Pitt played without Izzy Abanikanda, the ACC’s leading rusher who was hurt late in the North Carolina game Oct. 29. He didn’t practice all week, but he was in uniform Saturday. Coach Pat Narduzzi said, “Expect him back and ready to roll next week (at Virginia).”

Pitt was better equipped than Syracuse to handle the absence of its best player on offense.

Rodney Hammond Jr. started and ran for a career-high 124 yards on 28 carries, scoring Pitt’s first touchdown from the 6.

Late in the game, Hammond, who missed five games with a foot injury earlier, helped kill three minutes off the clock by rushing seven times for 31 yards.

“I appreciate my coaches trusting me,” Hammond said. “If they trust me, I’m going to give them a reason to trust me.

I’m the type of person, I don’t want to let anybody down. If I get a chance to close the game, I’m going to close it out.”

Perhaps the decisive Pitt possession occurred in the third quarter when fourth-string tailback C’Bo Flemister seized his opportunity while Pitt was trying to build upon a 10-6 lead.

He carried 10 times for 42 yards in an 11-play drive — after getting only 23 carries in the first eight games — and finally somersaulted into the end zone from the 1 to give Pitt a 17-6 lead and some breathing room.

“It’s staying prepared, making sure I’m reading my keys, not trying to make too much happen and running downhill,” he said. “Trust my eyes and most of all trust my guys. I’ve been waiting on this for a long time.”

Flemister, who has been with the team since August after transferring from Notre Dame, thought he scored on the previous play.

“I didn’t like that they said I was down the play prior,” he said. “I saw a lot of guys go down, and no Syracuse guys in the big open hole. I said, ‘I gotta get in this time.’

“I leapt intentionally, but it was not my intention to do a somersault.”

The victory wasn’t the prettiest, with Slovis and wide receiver Jared Wayne throwing interceptions when the team was in the red zone and the Panthers committing nine penalties for 79 negative yards.

Slovis said he was trying to throw the football away while a defender was at his feet. Safety Ja’Had Carter picked off the pass in the end zone.

“It was pretty stupid,” he said. “With a guy around my legs, I probably should have just taken the sack. That’s on me. I have to be better.”

In the end, however, Pitt had enough push to stretch Pitt’s streak of beating a ranked team to seven consecutive seasons.

Of less importance, it brought the Panthers one victory from bowl eligibility. But it also may boost some egos and build some confidence for the final three-game stretch, starting next Saturday at Virginia.

“Winning is everything,” Dennis said. “Within a football game and life, really, all you want to do is win.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at jdipaola@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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