Pitt seniors looking to go out winners against Syracuse
PITTSBURGH (AP) The signs of progress at Pittsburgh are unmistakable. From the remodeled offices to the return of the popular ''script'' logo on the helmets to the arrival of living, breathing adrenaline rush Pat Narduzzi as head coach in December 2014, the vibe today is in stark contrast to the one tackle Adam Bisnowaty felt when he arrived in the summer of 2012.
And while all those things are great, what Bisnowaty will miss the most isn't the place so much as the people, including the fellow seniors who will storm out onto the Heinz Field tunnel one final time on Saturday when the Panthers (7-4, 4-3 ACC) host Syracuse (4-7, 2-5). The program was in the middle of a bumpy patch when Bisnowaty signed in February 2012. Paul Chryst had been on the job less than two months after Todd Graham abruptly left after one season for Arizona State. Then Chryst walked out the door, too, given a chance to return home to Wisconsin.
All that adversity, however, only deepened the bonds forged in the locker room and on the practice field.
''We all came here to play football for Pitt no matter who was our coach,'' Bisnowaty said. ''That's what we decided we were going to do. That's what we're going for every day.''
Just don't expect Bisnowaty or his teammates to get too sentimental. That will come later. There's too much at stake against the Orange. A loss would blunt the momentum of a regular season that already includes wins over rival Penn State and ACC powerhouse Clemson. A win would also better their already promising bowl prospects and give the Panthers consecutive seasons of at least eight victories for the first time since 2008-09.
The stakes aren't quite so high for the Orange, who have dropped three straight by an average of 33.3 points.
''We need to go out there and we need to play a good football game - a competitive football game down to the fourth quarter when we have a chance to win,'' first-year coach Dino Babers said. ''I think that's the key to bouncing back from all this stuff and trying to send the seniors out on a positive note.''
Some things to look for as Pitt goes for its 13th win in its last 15 meetings in a series that dates back to 1916.
GOODBYE JAMES?: A year ago, Pitt running back James Conner was diagnosed with cancer. Last Saturday, he scored his 53rd career touchdown to set a new ACC record. The 2014 ACC Player of the Year is keeping quiet about whether he'll return for his senior season, saying this week he won't make any decision until after the bowl game.
POROUS LINE: Syracuse QB Zack Mahoney was sacked eight times last week by Florida State and never could develop any kind of rhythm on offense. That means Pitt's Ejuan Price is more than likely salivating just a little bit. The senior defensive end has compiled 19 TFLs and 11 sacks on the year.
''It's a different game when a quarterback is getting hit a lot,'' Babers said. ''They're not supposed to get hit a lot. We've got to find a way to help him.''
BLAME CANADA: Pitt has already set a school record with 432 points despite entering the season with serious questions at wide receiver. Much of the credit goes to offensive coordinator Matt Canada, whose creative approach has created plenty of open space for Conner and do-everything wide receiver Quadree Henderson. Canada could become a candidate to land his first head coaching job in the offseason though he insisted he's happy getting in ''the lab'' with the rest of the Panthers staff and finding ways to exploit mismatches.
DRIVE FOR FIVE: A Syracuse victory would place the Orange in the mix for a possible bowl invitation if enough teams don't reach six wins to fill all 80 bowl slots. Last year, three 5-7 teams played in bowl games. Babers, however, is more focused on his team simply playing better.
''When you look at our 12-game schedule, we've only been favored to win one game,'' Babers said. ''For us to have (four) wins out of that situation with one game left to play, I think is a testament to the seniors and the staff and also that we're trending up.''
AP Sports Writer John Kekis in Syracuse, New York, contributed to this report.
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