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October 17, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Conner gets phone call from Lynch before scoring two touchdowns against the Hokies

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Pitt running back James Conner gave his teammates the great gift of two touchdown runs in the 21-16 victory against Virginia Tech on Thursday night at Heinz Field.
It was the least he could do. Before the game, Pitt assistant strength coach Kenechi Udeze gave Conner an opportunity of a lifetime.
Before the game while the team was relaxing at its hotel, Udeze made a telephone call to a friend — Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, who just happens to be the one NFL player Conner admires the most.
Udeze, an All-American defensive end at USC and a first-round draft choice of the Minnesota Vikings in 2004, was a coaching intern with the Seahawks in 2012 when he forged a friendship with Lynch. He called in a big chip Thursday.
“He said Marshawn wanted to talk to me,” Conner said, relating the story after the game. “I said (to Lynch), `I wore 24 because of you. I want to be just like you.’
“And he said, ‘No, you’ve got to be better than me.’ That meant a lot coming from one of the people I look up to.”
– Conner was held under 100 yards for the third consecutive game, with a season-low 19 carries for 85 yards. The victory put Pitt into the thick of the ACC Coastal Division title chase (a half-game behind Virginia, who plays at 5-1 Duke on Saturday).
So, Conner surely didn’t mind playing a complementary role to quarterback Chad Voytik, who gained a career-high 118, 26 more than he collected through the air.
“I’m not worried about the stats,” said Conner, who carries the ACC lead in rushing (959 yards) into the weekend. “Lesser carries, but we won the ball game and that’s all I care about.
“(Voytik) was a beast, he was a beast as well.”

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October 16, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Sparked by Boyd, Conner, Pitt will defeat Virginia Tech

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I have heard people call Pitt’s game Thursday night at Heinz Field a must-win for the victory-starved Panthers.
After all, they haven’t won since Sept. 13 — it was still summer — and they haven’t defeated an FBS team at home since Nov. 9, 2013, or an ACC team at home since Sept. 28, 2013 (their only such victory since joining the conference).
Small sample size — I get it — but I’d still say it’s time.
Those aren’t the reasons I believe Pitt will beat Virginia Tech. Those are just trivial facts. Here’s what I think:
* Injuries have depleted the Hokies’ backfield. They are down to their fourth- and fifth-string running backs. J.C. Coleman and Joel Caleb have combined for 38 carries and 145 yards after failing to beat out more talented freshmen Shai McKenzie and Marshawn Williams (now hurt, along with Trey Edmunds). I think Virginia Tech’s early problems in the ground game will build confidence among Pitt’s defensive players.
* Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Brewer has thrown 11 interceptions. That’s one more than his total of touchdown passes. All that vocal energy from Pitt secondary coach Troy Douglas towards his players at practice — “High-point the ball!” — shouldn’t go to waste. At some point, Pitt will need to change the game’s momentum with a pick.
* I’m losing faith in Pitt’s offense, but I think Tyler Boyd will be energized by his one-on-one battles with Virginia Tech cornerback Kendall Fuller. Boyd is third in the ACC in receptions (30) and fourth in yards (428); Fuller is first in pass breakups (13). Boyd loves a challenge. Should be fun to watch.
* Finally, I believe James Conner lining up on defense (if Paul Chryst follows through with it) will motivate his teammates, even if he only hurries Brewer a few times. If he gets a sack and then adds a touchdown on the other side, the Pitt bench will erupt.
Pitt 20, Virginia Tech 17. As a wise man once said, “We’ll see.”

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October 14, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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It’s time for Pitt to use Conner at defensive end

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Pitt coach Paul Chryst had a good answer Tuesday when asked by Trib columnist and KDKA-FM (The Fan) talk show host Joe Starkey about overusing James Conner.
Conner suggested he will add defensive end to his considerable running back duties Thursday night against Virginia Tech, but Chryst only said, “We’ll see” when asked about it.
But he was more talkative on the issue of possibly jeopardizing Conner’s future by playing him on both sides of the ball and increasing his risk of injury by adding to his number of snaps.
“Good question,” Chryst said.
“You always think about that. But you wouldn’t say, `OK, we can’t give him the 27th, 28th, 29th carry because it’s going to hurt his future.’
“It’s where a guy’s at, if they’re healthy in that game. You know when guys are banged up. You would never do anything to jeopardize anyone, not even for the NFL, just period.
“If you are getting close to where you are jeopardizing someone, those are the easy ones, actually, easy decisions.
“And, then, you want players to play. If they are going to play, go play.”
Conner, as tough a player as Pitt has had in the past five years, is willing to play both sides of the ball. In fact, defensive end or linebacker might be his best, most lucrative route to the pros, considering how the NFL is devaluing running backs these days.
But while Conner was averaging 26 carries per game, there just wasn’t a right time to make it happen.
Conner is eager to play a two-way role and, possibly, spark a team that is mired in a three-game losing streak that he termed “ridiculous.”
It’s risky only in the sense that football is risky in any case. In my opinion, it’s time — way past time — for Conner to do what he does best:
Inspire his teammates.

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October 8, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Some off-week Pitt/Virginia Tech notes

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Chatting with reporters Wednesday on the ACC coaches weekly conference call, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer sounded truly disappointed that freshman running back Shai McKenzie, who played for the Little Prexies of Washington High School, will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL in his right knee.
Late in a game against Western Michigan on Sept. 27, McKenzie re-injured the same knee that he hurt last season while playing for Washington. McKenzie graduated early from Washington and enrolled at Virginia Tech last January for rehab purposes.
“What a great kid,” Beamer said. “He was really coming along. The game he got hurt you noticed him out there (87 yards). He can run with power. He has speed, he’ll block for you. He’s got a bright future.
“It broke your heart that he got hurt. He will be back and be stronger than ever I feel like.”
McKenzie, who had played in all five games prior to the injury, is second on the team in rushing (53 carries, 269 yards and three touchdowns).
Virginia Tech (4-2) has had a run of misfortune at the running back position, also losing sophomore Trey Edmunds with a broken clavicle and freshman Marshawn Williams with a sprained ankle last Saturday in the 34-17 victory against North Carolina.
Williams could return in time for the Pitt game Oct. 16 at Heinz Field (ESPN). Edmunds will be out for an extended period.
Williams leads the team in rushing (85, 337, 3).
Beamer said Williams is “talking positive” about the ankle. “But we have to wait and see. Ankles do good for a while and then (healing) slows for a while.”

– Virginia Tech has had an interesting season, upsetting then-No. 8 Ohio State (now No. 15) in Columbus, 35-21, before losing at home to No. 19 East Carolina and No. 22 Georgia Tech.
Virginia Tech is 2-0 on the road this season, prompting this quip from Beamer, the winningest active coach in the FBS (270 victories):
“We’re young enough that maybe we don’t know that we shouldn’t be playing that well on the road.”

– One more note: Virginia Tech is 20-7 in ESPN Thursday night games.

– Pitt returned to practice Wednesday for the first time since stretching its losing streak to three games at Virginia.
Pitt coach Paul Chryst said sophomore offensive tackle Adam Bisnowaty was expected to practice after sitting out the Virginia loss due to a one-game disciplinary suspension.
Asked if suspending Bisnowaty was frustrating and/or difficult, Chryst said it was all of that.
“It’s clear what expectations are, but you care a lot about these kids and it’s our job to help them grow,” he said.
Bisnowaty was one of the most cooperative players on the team this season — both with coaches and media. He had played three positions while Chryst and line coach Jim Hueber tried to find the right combination of offensive linemen. Bisnowaty, a Fox Chapel graduate, repeatedly told reporters that he didn’t mind bouncing from spot to another and would do whatever asked of him.
Chryst said “we’ll see” when asked if Bisnowaty will return to the starting lineup.

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October 4, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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See you in Charlottesville, Va.

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Some thoughts before I get in the car Saturday morning for the trip to Charlottesville, Va.:
– Central Valley cornerback Jordan Whitehead’s decision to matriculate to Pitt pointed out something to me that should be obvious:
There is no right way to recruit that can applied to every prospect.
Pitt’s Paul Chryst’s way is to:

  • – Find kids who appear to fit (I say appear because you never know for sure).
  • – Explain the benefits (academics, food plan, immediate playing time, whatever).
  • – Show him the appropriate amount of attention (but don’t smother him).
  • – Get to know his parents (big key).
  • – Sit back and hope.

Some kids want college coaches to do everything but wipe their noses when they have the sniffles. That’s not Chryst’s way. That’s also not Whitehead’s way. That’s why he said he’s going to Pitt. Chryst did not pressure him into a decision.
I also believe Whitehead sees a chance to play immediately because there is nothing Pitt needs more than good cornerbacks.
– I found it interesting that Whitehead’s parents Greg and Antonia got the opportunity to meet the wives of several Pitt coaches, including Robin Chryst, Dawn Rudolph and Rebecca Douglas. A little thing, but it promotes the family atmosphere many parents hope a college football program can offer a kid.
– Also interesting to see Marines in their dress blues at Central Valley on Friday. No, they weren’t trying to coax Whitehead into giving up football and enlisting. Whitehead was picked to play in the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl on Jan. 4 in Carson, Calif.
– The news that sophomore offensive left tackle Adam Bisnowaty has been suspended for the Virginia game Saturday might have been as discouraging to Pitt fans as the Whitehead story was encouraging. That makes two happenings in less than a week that appeared to be part of the Pitt past, but just won’t go away — players misbehaving and losses to programs such as Akron.
– ROOT Sports is televising Kansas/West Virginia at 4 p.m. and Pitt/Virginia at 7:37 p.m. Saturday, which creates the potential for conflict if the first one runs long. ROOT officials said Friday that viewers within the West Virginia borders will see the WVU game to its conclusion; and viewers in Western Pennsylvania won’t miss the kickoff of the Pitt game. West Virginia fans living in Pittsburgh (my son-in-law is one of them) might not like it, however, if Kansas somehow takes WVU into overtime.
– Pitt prediction: 21-16, Virginia. To win, Pitt needs a big day from quarterback Chad Voytik or a near-perfect effort by the defense. Pitt won’t win without one or the other.

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September 28, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt fans can boo if they must — but they look and sound ridiculous

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I’ll give you a word of warning before you read this:
If you were one of the people at Heinz Field on Saturday booing Pitt’s thoroughly humiliating 21-10 loss to Akron, you aren’t going to like this.
OK. Here goes:
I am in the clear minority of media people who believe booing is wrong. It’s rude, meaningless and suggests that the person doing the booing knows exactly what he’s watching. In most cases, he doesn’t.
Yeah, you paid your money for tickets and have a right to act as you choose in public. But why waste your breath? No one’s listening. The players care about their teammates, not some boorish fan in the sixth level. Pitt tight end Manasseh Garner already said that.
Besides, weren’t you raised better than that? Did you ever see a person’s face when it’s contorted by booing. U-G-L-Y!
That being said, I feel your frustration if you’re a Pitt fan who watched that mess Saturday. The defense was bad, the offense was worse. Akron finally beat an FBS team — and it was Pitt.
When they behave, fans deserve better than that.
Pitt fans have waited decades for a winning team. And I’m not talking math:
– 7-6 with a bowl victory against Bowling Green doesn’t count.
– 8-5 when you fire the coach doesn’t count.
– 10-3 that includes blowing a 21-point lead to Cincinnati with the conference title on the line doesn’t count.
– 9-4 ending with a 3-0 loss to Oregon State in a bowl game really doesn’t count.
– 8-4 doesn’t count when you are embarrassed by Utah, 35-7, in the Fiesta Bowl — your only BCS bowl game.
Like my friend and co-worker Garrett Conti posted on Facebook yesterday: “It’s REALLY hard to be a Pitt fan.”
And he’s one of the loyal ticket buyers.
This loss hurt more than most in recent Pitt history because people expected better after a 3-0 start that included a big ACC victory at Boston College. Players seemed more serious about working toward a goal; coach Paul Chryst kept repeating how he likes the way his players approach their jobs; true nationally recognized stars Tyler Boyd and James Conner emerged.
What happened? Pitt needs more than just Boyd and Conner, especially in a season when it is breaking in a new, inexperienced starting quarterback and a young secondary. No one works harder than Chad Voytik, but quarterbacks are developed over time, not built like an Erector set.
Chryst has patience because that’s his job. Fans don’t because they expect results now, especially after the past I just detailed.
I read some comments on Twitter last night about fans’ need for instant gratification (these were the people defending Pitt). After all, this is Chryst’s third season.
Someone responded that three years is long enough. Maybe it is. But the third year isn’t half finished. The loss to Akron was bad and indicates that better days are not ahead.
But I didn’t hear about an new ACC edict that ends your season when you lose to a MAC team.
There is time to recover. You do remember 2012 when Pitt beat Virginia Tech and took No. 2 Notre Dame into triple overtime after opening the season with a loss to Youngstown State.
I’m not saying Pitt will win the ACC Coastal. On the contrary, my guess is Pitt will finish 6-6 or worse, now that what appeared to be a W before the season became an L. The program could be set back — again — when it appeared to be taking significant steps forward.
But restrict the booing to your living room. It makes you look ridiculous.

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September 25, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt needs to win big Saturday against the Zips

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Winning is good enough, most of the time. But barely winning Saturday against Akron won’t be good enough for Pitt.
Pitt, which was inching toward national relevancy before losing to Iowa last Saturday, must defeat Akron forcefully and decisively for the college football world to notice.
Pitt received 40 points in the AP poll last week — that was 33rd-best in the nation — but they lost 39 of those points this week, justifiably. Anyone can lose to Iowa. Just like any Power 5 team should be able to beat Akron.
To be fair, Akron has made a major commitment to its football program. Two years ago, school officials signed coach Terry Bowden to a five-year, $2 million contract — more than they had paid any coach in history. Plus, they built a $61.6 million on-campus stadium that will have Pitt fans crying “Why not us?” when the Panthers visit there next season.
But after finishing 2013 on a 4-1 run, Akron fans were expecting more than the current 1-2 start and a 48-17 loss to Marshall.
A victory against Pitt — even a close loss — would help the Zips’ cause. Pitt can’t let that happen at its expense.
I believe in Pitt’s running game, especially against the MAC. Pitt will win, 31-10.

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September 24, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Good times, bad times for Pitt’s defense

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Pitt is among the nation’s leaders in three significant defensive categories — fourth in yards and third-down conversions allowed and eighth in interceptions — and I’m not sure what any of it means.
Is it the schedule? Maybe.
Delaware and Florida International don’t belong on the same field with a Power 5 conference team. But Pitt also played Boston College and Iowa from the ACC and Big Ten, and BC beat USC the following week.
Pitt is tied with No. 3 Alabama and No. 7 Baylor in third-down stops (38 of 50), but those defenses are better than Pitt’s, by far.
Still, you can’t ignore the good Pitt is doing on defense under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Freshmen Rori Blair and Avonte Maddox played several important downs in the loss to Iowa at defensive end and cornerback, even though they were matched against bigger, stronger and faster players. Blair earned his first career start. Coach Paul Chryst had no choice. The depth chart was depleted by injuries to defensive ends David Durham and Devin Cook, although both could play bigger roles Saturday against Akron.
Pitt’s secondary has endured some damaging growing pains, and it will have more before the end of the season. Cornerback has been a problem after Pitt lost Jahmahl Pardner and Trenton Coles to transfers before and after Chryst suspended Titus Howard for the season for violating team rules. All of that happened this year in the course of five months.
That leaves 40 percent of the secondary to Reggie Mitchell and Maddox — inexperienced players who impressed coaches in training camp and look to have a future, but they have a lot to learn (and are learning it on the job).
Mitchell and Maddox were one step from making big plays against Iowa (Mitchell on a blitz and Maddox on a 62-yard completion). One step might as well have been 100 — those plays cost Pitt some valuable yardage.
“Sometimes, it has to sting to learn,” defensive coordinator Matt House said. “If it stings enough you can correct it.”
Can the impressive rankings have anything to do with coaches making the right calls? Can’t say they are making a lot of bad ones. But who knows? I’m still waiting to be invited into the video room for one of House’s teaching sessions.
I do give secondary coach Troy Douglas credit for emphasizing the need for turnovers. Pitt has six interceptions after getting only eight in 13 games last season.

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September 19, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Lots of questions surround Pitt on its way to hosting Iowa

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You got questions about Pitt football. Me, too.
– I’m curious about the size of the crowd at Heinz Field for the game Saturday against Iowa. It’s about time for Pitt to draw 50,000-plus crowds on a consistent basis. Last year wasn’t bad — sellouts (65,500) against Florida State and Notre Dame and 50,049 for North Carolina. Pitt barely broke 40,000 for this year’s opener, but the opponent was Delaware. Iowa is a big-time program that will provide a serious test. There will be no excuse for anything less than 50,000.
– I’m curious how Pitt’s run game will be able to solve the Iowa run defense. It Pitt wins and the offense is the main reason, this could turn into an interesting season. If Pitt loses and the offense looks good, same thing.
– I’m curious who’s good in the Coastal Division of the ACC. Louisville beats Miami; Louisville loses to Virginia; Virginia Tech beats Ohio State; Virginia Tech loses to East Carolina at home. Pitt, North Carolina, Duke and Georgia Tech are undefeated, but are they any good? Pitt (Boston College) and Duke (Kansas) are the only teams in that group to beat a Power 5 school. So, Pitt is certainly in the mix. Said safety Ray Vinopal: “I believe we can win our division and go to the ACC championship. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be fighting hard for it.”
– I’m not that curious about who will play center. Coach Paul Chryst said Alex Officer and Gabe Roberts have looked good while replacing Artie Rowell in games and in practice. Chryst wouldn’t reveal his choice Thursday, and I don’t blame him. He has nothing to gain by doing so. Why give Iowa any nugget of information 48 hours before the game? Just a thought: Officer is incredibly athletic for a guy listed at 335 pounds. But how about this? With the original five starters, plus Officer, Roberts and Jaryd Jones-Smith, Pitt coaches have at least eight offensive linemen they truly trust in games — nine, I think, if you count freshman Alex Bookser. But Chryst doesn’t want to burn his redshirt.
– I’m curious if any of the 30 high school prospects expected to accept invitations to the game will commit over the weekend. Pitt has 14 verbals in the class of 2015, and probably has room for only three or four more (assuming they all sign in February). Kittanning tight end Nick Bowers, a Pitt verbal, is getting plenty of interest from Penn State, by the way.
– I’m curious about the answer to this question, posed to me by my good friends John Steigerwald and Ken Laird on TribLive Radio: How would Chryst handle the Jameis Winston situation? Winston, the Florida State quarterback and reigning Heisman Trophy winner, was suspended for the first half of the Clemson game Saturday after he shouted a horrible obscenity in the FSU student union. The nature of Winston’s outburst (you wouldn’t want to repeat it at home) and his past problems tell me a 30-minute suspension is not nearly enough. I think Chryst would agree with me. If Chryst was coach, Winston would sit out two games.
– I’m curious about who will win this game. I really don’t know. Iowa isn’t special, but Pitt’s secondary gave up a few too many big plays to a bad Florida International team with shaky depth at quarterback. I’m leaning toward Iowa, 23-20.

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September 17, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Former Pitt QB Congemi: `Hard-nosed football … a lost art’

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Former Pitt quarterback John Congemi said there is value in the ground-based offenses he’ll see Saturday at Heinz Field where he will be ESPNU’s analyst for Iowa/Pitt.
Congemi said Tuesday on TribLive Radio that the Panthers, fourth in the nation in rushing, are more conservative than most teams, and that could be a benefit in many games.
“It’s tough to defend a team that isn’t the norm,” he said. “The norm is throwing 50-55 times a game, spread you out, tempo, pace. When you run up against a team like Pitt or Iowa, you really have to go back to hard-nosed football, which sometimes is a lost art.
“You tell me the next time you see a 7-on-7 in the summertime and somebody tackles somebody. At some point, you still have to tackle. Sometimes, guys shy away from that if they are not used to it.”
Running the football Saturday won’t be easy for Pitt. The Hawkeyes are ranked sixth nationally against the run (65.7 yards).
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz grew up in Upper St. Clair in the 1970s, watching the Steelers build a dynasty of toughness, and he built his own reputation as an offensive line coach.
Pitt quarterback Chad Voytik has thrown only 50 passes in three games, but Iowa is vulnerable in the secondary, allowing an average of 7.4 yards every time the opponent puts the ball in the air. Ask me, it’s time for the shackles to come off the Pitt quarterback.
Coach Paul Chryst said he wants balance in his offense. There is no better time than the present to find it.
One more thought from Congemi. He said a Pitt victory “probably gets them in the top 25.”

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