PITTSBURGH — Syracuse is sticking to its youth movement, growing pains and all, no matter how much they hurt on a given weekend.
It's all a part of the process, which is why second-year coach Scott Shafer refuses to label this frustrating season a total loss even as the Orange looked overwhelmed for long stretches of a 30-7 loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday.
"Discouragement? That's when you're giving up," Shafer said. "Disappointment? No doubt. We got beat up pretty bad by a really good conference schedule. We had a very difficult nine weeks. The reality is, we didn't stay healthy and play good football."
Certainly not against the Panthers. Freshmen quarterbacks AJ Long and Mitch Kimble failed to generate any real momentum as Syracuse (3-8, 1-6 ACC) lost for the eighth time in nine games following a 2-0 start.
The Orange were outgained 445-255, turned it over three times in the first half and held the ball for less than 22 minutes. That's hardly the way to win on the road against a team hoping to keep its flickering bowl hopes alive.
Long completed 10 of 19 passes for 146 yards with an interception in his return after missing a loss to Duke with nerve issues in his right shoulder. Kimble went 0 for 6 with a pick as Syracuse fell behind 17-0 and never really threatened.
"We shot ourselves in the foot mentally, and that's what stopped us today," Long said.
Pitt sophomore running back James Conner set a new ACC record with his 22nd rushing touchdown of the season but left in the second quarter with a right hip injury. For once, the Panthers didn't need their star sophomore. Chris James ran for a career-high 122 yards in place of Conner and Pitt's defense did the rest.
"I believe whenever we can get two or more turnovers, we can win the game," Pitt linebacker Anthony Gonzalez said. "We did that tonight and came out with a victory."
The series between the longtime rivals — who have faced each other every year since 1955 and leapt from the Big East to the ACC last fall — often makes up for in late-game drama what it lacks in fireworks, with each of the last two meetings decided by a single point.
Not this time.
Pitt, trying to extend its bowl streak to seven straight, wore down the Orange behind a running game that cruised even with the nation's third-leading rusher sitting out the second half with pain in his hip. Conner stuck around long enough to punch in a 1-yard touchdown in the first quarter, tying Heisman Trophy-winner Tony Dorsett's school mark for rushing TDs in a season and topping the 21 set by Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams in 2009.
Syracuse's only extended drive came at the start of the second half, keyed by a 46-yard throw from Long to Steve Ishmael that set up Ron Johnson — a defensive lineman — for a 1-yard score that briefly pulled the Orange within 17-7.
It was the lone highlight for Syracuse. Pitt responded by reeling off the game's final 13 points, though Ishmael insists his team is trying to stay upbeat even as the losses mount.
"I would say that the freshmen, we really want to change this program around," he said. "A tough loss, a tough year, but through the trials and tribulations can make us stronger as a team."
One that still has a way to go if it wants to find its footing in the ACC's Atlantic Division that happens to have Florida State and Clemson. Ishmael believes the Orange can get there even if progress can't be found on the scoreboard lately.
"Most people would just quit after all this, but we're just getting better," Ishmael said. "Some people wouldn't be able to take this, but if we can take it we can move things up to another level next year."
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