PITTSBURGH (AP) — Like the rest of their teammates, Rodney Hammond and C'Bo Flemister have sat and watched Israel Abanikanda carry Pittsburgh's offense for most of a wildly uneven season.
The ACC's leading rusher sidelined by an injury before Saturday's visit from No. 22 Syracuse, Hammond and Flemister were more than happy to pick up the slack for a program that calls itself “RB U."
Hammond ran for a career-high 124 yards and a touchdown, and Flemister added 43 yards and his first score with the Panthers as Pitt shut down the Orange in a 19-9 victory to end a two-game losing streak.
“We always make sure we're available and ready to make plays,” said Hammond, who was supposed to split carries with Abanikanda this season before being injured in the season opener against West Virginia.
The Panthers (5-4, 2-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) churned out 161 yards on the ground and held the ball for nearly 37 minutes in beating Syracuse for the 18th time in 21 meetings.
Pitt's defense swarmed Orange quarterback Carlos Del Rio-Wilson in his first collegiate start. The redshirt freshman was sacked six times and completed just 8 of 23 passes for 120 yards while taking over for injured Garrett Shrader.
Syracuse (6-3, 3-2) ran for just 25 yards while dropping its third straight following a 6-0 start. Sophomore star Sean Tucker was held to just 24 yards on 10 carries, a situation that forced Del Rio-Wilson to drop back to throw far more than head coach Dino Babers would have liked.
“It's difficult to turn this into too much of a passing team and not a balanced football team,” said Babers, who indicated Del Rio-Wilson took all the snaps with the starters in practice this week after Shrader exited last week's loss to Notre Dame at halftime.
Though Pitt quarterback Kedon Slovis failed to throw a touchdown pass for a fourth straight game — the USC transfer completed 16 of 23 for 178 yards and an ill-advised heave into the end zone in the first quarter that ended as an interception — Hammond and Flemister made up for it while doing a pretty solid Abanikanda impersonation.
Hammond stressed it wasn't hard for him to watch Abanikanda flourish but added he was more than ready to go with the FBS leader in all-purpose yards unavailable. The bowling ball-like Hammond, listed at 5-foot-9 and 200 pounds, had seven straight carries during a fourth-quarter drive that helped bleed the clock after the Orange made it a one-score game on a field goal with 4:52 left.
“I was telling the (offensive) line (Syracuse) was sending the house,” Hammond said. “But they weren't worried. I wasn't worried. We kept our composure.”
Syracuse did manage to get the ball back with 1:40 remaining. Backed up to its 1-yard line, Del-Rio Wilson was sacked for a safety by Pitt's Deslin Alexandre on the first play to seal it and breathe some life back into the Panthers' season after three losses in four games in October effectively ended any shot as repeating as ACC champions.
“It’s a steppingstone that shows us that we need to keep fighting,” Alexandre said. "That’s what we did tonight.”
Syracuse: So much for that impressive start. The Orange have returned to earth over the past three weeks. The sometimes fortunate bounces that allowed Syracuse to race to 6-0 have largely evaporated. The Orange got a break early in the fourth quarter thanks to a 2-yard punt by the Panthers but failed to turn great field position into any points when they badly needed to swing momentum.
Pitt: The defense the Panthers expected to have much of the season — a defense that has been spotty at critical times of late — showed up against Syracuse. The Orange wanted to run the ball to take some of the heat off Del Rio-Wilson. They couldn't. If this kind of performance is replicable, the Panthers could put together a hot streak to finish a somewhat disappointing season.
The Orange's four-week run in the rankings is almost certainly over. The voters didn't ding Syracuse much for hanging tough in a road loss to Clemson or a home setback against Notre Dame. They figure to be less forgiving this time.
Syracuse: hosts Florida State next Saturday night.
Pitt: travels to Virginia next Saturday.
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