Syracuse, which has struggled for the past five seasons, carried a three-game winning streak into the Carrier Dome. Although the Orange had built most of their solid record on wins over two FCS teams and another over Akron, one of the worst FBS teams in the nation, a win a week ago at South Florida made this the most important home game in nearly a decade.
Second-year head coach Doug Marrone has transformed the laid-back culture of his predecessor, Greg Robinson, and a victory against a Pitt team that was ranked in the preseason and picked to win the conference title was important in keeping Marrone's program on track.
But Pittsburgh (3-3, 1-0 Big East) was desperate to start league play with a victory. Coming off a 23-17 loss at Notre Dame, coach Dave Wannstedt said a fresh start was always nice, and Devin Street put the Panthers in a winning frame of mind on Pitt's first play from scrimmage. He took a short screen pass to the left and outraced Da'Mon Merkerson for 79 yards and a touchdown.
Syracuse (4-2, 1-1) tried to blitz Sunseri to get him uncomfortable just as the Orange did a week ago against B.J. Daniels, sacking him four times and intercepting him twice in a 13-9 victory. Not much worked.
Sunseri was 17 of 24 for 266 yards as the Panthers went to the air instead of the ground to vanquish a longtime rival, converting six times on third down and limiting Syracuse to 77 yards rushing.
Ryan Nassib was 25 of 46 for 231 yards passing for Syracuse and Ricky Gary returned one of his two interceptions 80 yards for a touchdown.
Syracuse rallied to tie the game 7-7 with a big play of its own. After Delone Carter gained 26 yards on two carries, Alec Lemon made a terrific diving catch along the right sideline for a 41-yard gain to the Pitt 13. Carter scored from the 1 to even the score midway through the first quarter.
The defenses then assumed control over the next four possessions, but the field slowly tilted the Panthers' way and they eventually capitalized. A punt by Dan Hutchins pinned the Orange back at their own 14, they went three-and-out, and Cameron Saddler returned Rob Long's punt 31 yards, reversing his field and nearly breaking free before being shoved out of bounds at the Syracuse 22.
Four plays later, Sunseri hit tailback Ray Graham with a lob that he caught at the goal line for a 15-yard touchdown and a 14-7 lead late in the first.
Aside from its 10-play, 83-yard scoring drive, the Syracuse offense sputtered repeatedly as Pitt shut down every avenue of attack. The Orange gained only 7 yards on the other 10 plays it ran in the first quarter, had only 49 yards on 12 plays in the second, and finished the first half staring at a 28-7 deficit.
A week after excelling in a 13-9 win at South Florida, the Syracuse defense was victimized four times on third down in the second quarter to keep Pitt scoring drives alive.
The most glaring breakdown came on a third-and-10 play from the Orange 30. After Graham was stopped twice at the line of scrimmage, Sunseri hit 6-foot-5 wideout Mike Shanahan, who had broken free over the middle, for a touchdown.
Sunseri then converted twice more on third downs, hitting Lewis over the middle for 9 yards to set up Lewis' 1-yard scoring run late in the second.
Syracuse started the second half fired-up, forced the Panthers into a three-and-out, and seemed poised for a rally.
Nassib responded by hitting Van Chew for 13 yards and Lemon for another 11, and an interference call against Pittsburgh gave the Orange a first down at the Pitt 25.
Any hope evaporated when Nassib was pressured on a third-and-16 play and threw an interception that Gary returned down the right sideline for a 35-7 lead.
Nassib hit Chew on a slant over the middle for an 11-yard touchdown early in the fourth.
Sunseri completed his standout performance with a 6-yard scoring pass to Brock DeCicco after an Orange turnover to complete Pitt's eighth win in the past nine games against Syracuse.
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