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October 28, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt’s Chryst takes time to consider future of the Backyard Brawl

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The question was appropriate, but it caught Paul Chryst off-guard Monday during his weekly news conference.
He handled it expertly.
With everyone in a throwback mood after the celebrated return of the script Pitt, Chryst was asked to reveal his thoughts on the gone — but not forgotten — Backyard Brawl with West Virginia.
Initially, it appeared Chryst didn’t want to answer, but then he did — and in a personal way.
“I know there have been some discussions, but I haven’t been thinking a lot about it right now,” he said.
Makes sense. Chryst’s team has lost four of its past five games, and he needs to focus on Saturday’s game against first-place Duke. No offense, but the 20th-ranked Mountaineers are probably one of the last thoughts on the Pitt coach’s mind.
Chryst continued, anyway. You see, West Virginia is not just another stop on the college football road map for Chryst. It was there he got his first exposure to coaching as a graduate assistant in 1989-90. One of the WVU players at the time was former Mountaineers star linebacker Chris Haering, now Chryst’s special teams/linebacker coach at Pitt.
“I was part of it and I think it’s a great rivalry,” Chryst said. “Two of the best atmospheres I’ve been a part of as a coach were in those games.”
But he added, “I don’t know if it has a chance of happening or not.”
Chryst is smart enough to know that with Pitt in the ACC and West Virginia in the Big 12 — where it must play nine conference games — restarting the rivalry is more than just a matter of someone picking up a telephone.
“I’m certainly not the one who is going to decide all that,” he said.
Pitt has turned its non-conference attention to Penn State, Oklahoma State and Marshall, among others. In 2016 — when Tyler Boyd might be in the NFL — Pitt will play those teams and Clemson, its ACC crossover opponent. Plus, Notre Dame is a non-member member of the ACC, so room must be found for five games with the Irish in the next 11 seasons.
In my opinion, scheduling games with those non-conference schools is almost a tacit admission by Pitt officials that they have little interest in renewing a rivalry that was played 104 times, including every year from 1943-2011.
Why Oklahoma State of the Big 12 over nearby WVU of the same conference? Good question.
Maybe neither school wants to do the other a favor. After all, it was a bitter rivalry.

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October 25, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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It’s not written in script, but there is a Georgia Tech/Pitt prediction at the bottom of this blog

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I thought about doing this blog in cursive to join in the mood of the day, but I didn’t feel like writing it long-hand, taking a picture of it and posting it. Besides, I was late for dinner.
What I liked most about writing the story on the return of the Pitt script was talking to Tony Dorsett, Pitt’s only Heisman Trophy winner, and All-American defensive lineman Al Romano. They were making their way from Peter’s Pub to other Oakland hot spots Friday, celebrating their informal reunion with teammates from the 1973-1976 teams.
Dorsett was diagnosed earlier this year with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative condition caused by head trauma. He said he has good and bad days, but Friday was one of the good ones as he hung out and reminisced with his teammates from Pitt’s national championship team.
“I’m like a kid in a candy store,” said Dorsett, who was one of the first Pitt players to wear helmets emblazoned with the Pitt script after it was introduced in 1973. “The Pitt script is it.”
Athletic director Steve Pederson, who kept the secret for several weeks after deciding it was time to reintroduce the script decal, picked Homecoming week to bring it back. Hundreds of graduates are in town, and Pitt is playing ACC rival Georgia Tech in a game that will — with a victory and a Virginia loss to North Carolina — elevate the Panthers into sole possession of first place in the Coastal Division.
It will be interesting to see if the script attracts any more fans. I have been on Twitter long enough to send out more than 6,100 tweets, but none were re-tweeted more often than news of the return of the script. Whatever is second isn’t even close.
The script’s elimination, which Pederson explained Friday, always has been cited as one of the reasons for fans’ disillusionment with the program. A more relevant reason — disappointing outcomes to too many seasons — also could disappear this year if Pitt finds a way over the next five weeks to win the Coastal.
I have to admit Georgia Tech/Pitt stumps me. The Ramblin’ Wreck (best nickname in college football, by the way) look to be better on offense but inferior on defense to last year’s team that beat Pitt, 21-10, in Atlanta.
I think this could be a big day for Pitt running back James Conner and Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas.
Should be interesting. Seven of Pitt’s first eight ACC games have been decided by an average of 7 1/2 points.
Pitt 27, Georgia Tech 24.

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October 23, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Chryst keeps churning out new ideas, or how many middle linebackers are too many?

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Pitt coach Paul Chryst put a twist into his game plan last week against Virginia Tech, giving quarterback Chad Voytik more designed running plays.
That move probably created the difference between winning and losing in a game decided by five points. Voytik ran for 118 yards.
Now, Chryst may be making a move on the other side of the ball Saturday against Georgia Tech, inserting defensive end Nicholas Grigsby at middle linebacker, and having him share the position with Bam Bradley. At least, that’s how Grigsby put it Wednesday in his chat with reporters. But Matt Galambos, who has started six games at middle linebacker this season, spoke to us, and he indicated he also was part of the rotation.
Hmmm … I’m not sure what to make of all of this, but it will be interesting Saturday afternoon to see who lines up initially at middle linebacker and who rotates into the position. Could Chryst use all three? Sounds a bit unwieldy to me.
Grigsby played the same position last year against Georgia Tech, so coach Paul Johnson probably wouldn’t be surprised to see him. But Grigsby and Bradley would add more speed to the defense — something Pitt has needed on that side of the ball for several years — and that would go a long way toward counteracting Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas, who leads the Ramblin’ Wreck in rushing with 625 yards.
“I play sideline-to-sideline and downhill and I played option teams in high school,” Grigsby said. “Once you get it and once you know where your keys are, your keys will take you to the play.”

Most improved?
If I were to pick the two most improved defensive players from last year, I would choose Grigsby and Bradley, with defensive end Dave Durham not far behind. I wonder if Grigsby and Bradley will be the starting outside linebackers next year after Todd Thomas and Anthony Gonzalez exhaust their eligibility.

The meaning of focus
Nice answer from offensive tackle T.J. Clemmings after I asked him if he noticed ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay’s tweet during the Virginia Tech game. McShay said Clemmings made more improvement from one year to the next than anyone he has seen, and he said Clemmings is playing like a first- or second-round pick.
“That was nice of him,” Clemmings said, “but that’s all I’d like to say about that.”
Combine Clemmings’ comment with Voytik saying he didn’t know Pitt was tied for first in the ACC Coastal, and maybe this team really is focused on nothing but the next opponent.
Finally.

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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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