Pittsburgh-Syracuse Preview

(AP) – Pat Narduzzi arrived at Pittsburgh last December. His job was to find a way to elevate a team seemingly stuck around .500 for years.

He’s well ahead of schedule.

The Panthers are 5-1 and ranked at No. 25, cracking the poll for the first time in five years, heading into Saturday’s visit to Syracuse. An early sign of success, sure, but Narduzzi is not swayed by an arbitrary ranking.

”It’s just a number,” he said. ”We’re more than a number.”

Pitt is 3-0 in the wide-open ACC Coastal Division and has played four of six games on the road, including a 31-28 win at Georgia Tech last Saturday.

”We’ve got goals and we’ve got places we want to go and our kids know that,” Narduzzi said. ”If they look at the 25 and they walk out there, write it on their wristband `Oh, we’re No. 25,’ I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Pitt’s previous ranking was No. 15 in the 2010 preseason under coach Dave Wannstedt. The Panthers didn’t last long – they were out of the poll after an opening loss to Utah.

Now, behind one of the nation’s top defensive units and most accurate passers in the ACC in Nate Peterman, Pitt is one of the league’s biggest surprises.

Narduzzi and his staff understand the importance of the ranking to the players. After all, the Panthers didn’t receive a single vote in the previous week’s poll.

”The great thing is they were nowhere on the radar,” Narduzzi said. ”They weren’t even a blip a week ago. We talk about earning respect and we do that every week and our kids earned it.”

Peterman ranks 13th in the nation with a 66.7 completion percentage. He completed 14 of 21 attempts for 162 yards and a career-high three touchdowns when the Panthers edged the Yellow Jackets on Chris Blewitt’s school-record 56-yard field goal with just over a minute to go.

A transfer from Tennessee, Peterman took the starting job from incumbent Chad Voytik last month. He sees the ranking as a stepping stone.

”It’s encouraging, for sure,” Peterman said. ”I think even after the Virginia Tech game that was big when coach Narduzzi told us they don’t give out midseason awards and there’s no championship in the middle of the season.”

As Pitt begins the second half of its season, Narduzzi doesn’t expect his players’ approach to waver even if they aren’t the no-name unit they were in August.

”I think that’s who they are,” Narduzzi said. ”I think that’s what we’ve coached in this room and I don’t think we’ll be any different.”

On Saturday, the Panthers can reach the six-win mark in October. In other years, a sixth win wouldn’t come until November. For Pitt, it’s a foothold, a road to bigger things.

”The apple or whatever food is right in front of you,” Peterman said. ”You’ve just got to go out and grab it.”

It’ll be the Orange (3-3, 1-1) that Peterman and Panthers offense are looking at this week, and they’ll find a defense that’s had too many big chunks taken out of it in the last month. Syracuse has surrendered 469.5 yards per game and an average of 37.5 points in its past four contests, dropping a third straight last Saturday by blowing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead and falling 44-38 in triple overtime at Virginia.

”I thought they kept playing hard,” coach Scott Shafer said. ”It was hard to tell from the sideline angle, but any gas they had, they left it on the field. … The kids are exhausted, that’s for sure, especially the defense.”

A tired defense may put more pressure on Eric Dungey and the offense to keep up. The freshman has averaged 8.8 yards per pass attempt this season, thrown nine touchdowns to one interception and run for 166 yards and three TDs in his past three games.

Finding time to throw against Pitt’s defense likely won’t be easy. The Panthers are in the nation’s top 15 in sacks (22), opponents’ passer rating (100.4), completion percentage (50.3) and touchdowns allowed (four).

Pitt has won nine of the last 10 meetings, with star receiver Tyler Boyd pulling in 17 catches for 208 yards and a touchdown in the last two Panthers victories.