Pittsburgh and Syracuse will play for the same goal Saturday in Pittsburgh -- bowl eligibility.
It is safe to say nobody expected either team to be in this position. The Panthers were picked to finish No. 2 in the Big East when the season began. Syracuse was 5-2 in the middle of October. Yet neither team has gotten particularly strong play from its offense down the stretch, so both face a must-win just to get to .500 and keep their seasons alive.
"Obviously we didn't want to be in the position where we're fighting to be in a bowl game, but it would be big for us to get to one," Pittsburgh guard Lucas Nix said. "Not only that, it's Senior Day, so we all want to perform well."
Syracuse coach Doug Marrone also has emphasized to his team the meaning and importance of playing for the senior class, a group that worked so hard to help the Orange rebuild their program. He said this week that playing for a bowl game has not been motivation enough, since the Orange have dropped four straight with bowl eligibility on the line.
So he has tried a different tactic.
"He's been harping on doing it for the seniors, playing for those guys next to you, those guys who poured all their blood, sweat and tears into the program the last four years," Syracuse tackle Justin Pugh said.
Since Syracuse's big win against West Virginia, Marrone has said his players are worried about making mistakes and that has impacted the way they have played.
"After the big win against West Virginia, there was added pressure," Pugh said. "It's tough to go out there when you're thinking about not messing up. Coach has really emphasized to us to try to play loose and with a lot of enthusiasm, to play our game. If we do our job, everything should end up OK. Hopefully everyone takes that mindset and all 11 guys have it this week."
Scoring more would certainly help. During this four-game losing streak, Syracuse is averaging 15 points a game. As it stands, the Orange rank No. 89 in the nation in total offense, and No. 79 in scoring offense. Pittsburgh has not lit up the scoreboard, either, ranking No. 83 in total offense and No. 75 in scoring offense.
Those numbers come as more of a surprise, because coach Todd Graham promised a high-octane offense when he got the job. But everybody on offense has been slow to adapt to the new hurry-up spread, from the offensive line, to quarterback Tino Sunseri, to his receivers. Remember, these are pro-style players being asked to run a system that is completely foreign to them.
A learning curve was to be expected. But what has come as a disappointment is that the players have not really grasped the concepts well after 11 games. There has been little to no improvement. Plus, the Panthers have had to deal with the loss of their best player, Ray Graham.
"It's been an experience trying to go through this season and coaching on the fly," Nix said. "All year, we kept saying, 'It's getting close it's getting close.' At points we thought we were there and getting over the hump, but it's just mental mistakes, people not fully buying into the system. I honestly think all these players have tried to buy in, it's just a matter of more time and repetitions."
Adversity has struck both teams. Whoever handles it best Saturday will be going bowling.
"Every season despite the records, there's always ups and downs and some type of adversity you have to deal with," Marrone said. "Has this been a tough year? Does it rank up there with some of the other ones? It has. I'm not going to deny that. Whatever the adversity you're faced with, you refocus everything on the field.
"When you have situations that occur that you can't control, whether it's injuries or suspensions, you need to move on and people need to pick up. The one lesson I always learned: no one ever feels sorry for you. No one's looking across that field saying, 'Gosh I feel bad this player's hurt or this player's out.' Everyone's focused on going out to win a game. Sometimes the greatest lessons in life you learn during this time. Sometimes true character is created, and how you deal with these situations and how you deal with adversity is going to help you later on in life."