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November 26, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Todd Graham’s only Pitt recruiting class, four years later

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The full value of a school’s recruiting class most often can’t be measured until the end of its fourth year.
It’s time to put Todd Graham to the test.
Graham put together his first and only Pitt class in February of 2011. On signing day, I was granted access to the so-called war room — actually, it was the lobby outside Graham’s office — and I can still hear him talking into his cell phone when a recruit called to confirm receipt of his letter of intent:
“Hey, big stud. Ready to win a national championship?”
But I digress.
Graham signed 21 players that day, a hastily assembled class that had started falling apart when Dave Wannstedt was fired and Michael Haywood was arrested in December.
It is now nearly four years and four seasons later, and only nine of the 21 players remain. Here’s a salute to the survivors:
Running back Isaac Bennett, cornerback Lafayette Pitts, defensive tackle K.K. Mosley-Smith, linebacker Nicholas Grigsby and center Artie Rowell. The others remain on the team, but are rarely used in games:
Defensive end Devin Cook, wide receiver Ronald Jones, safety Jevonte Pitts and defensive tackle LaQuentin Smith. Backup quarterback Trey Anderson, who is 11 for 18 this season, came along in August.
By the way, only Bennett and Smith, who weren’t redshirted, will exhaust their eligibility at the end of this season. Read about Bennett’s Pitt journey here.
Perhaps more players would still be at Pitt if Graham hadn’t left 10 months after signing day. Many of them were selected specifically for Graham’s speed-based offense, and didn’t fit Paul Chryst’s more conventional style.
But the point is the departure of 12 of the 21 players left Pitt without enough seasoned leadership this season.
Contrast that class to Wannstedt’s 27-man class in 2006. A total of 17 of them made it to 2009 when Pitt recorded its only double-digit victory total (10) in the past 33 years. It was Wannstedt’s fifth season.
Making it all the way were offensive line starters Jason Pinkston, Joe Thomas and John Malecki and several other key players, including tight ends Nate Byham and Dorin Dickerson, cornerback Aaron Berry, safety Elijah Fields and Big East co-defensive player of the year defensive end Greg Romeus.
Using this formula, Pitt’s 2016 team will be the first true gauge of Chryst’s recruiting skills. Delay your evaluation until 2017 if Tyler Boyd and James Conner, who will be draft eligible after the 2015 season, leave early for the NFL.
PITT/MIAMI PREDICTION
Thanks to the Thanksgiving holiday and Friday’s travel demands, I’ll offer my weekly prediction a few days early.
It will be difficult for Pitt to keep up with Miami’s speed Saturday night. So expect a high-scoring game. Miami’s defense has struggled this season, and Pitt will have some success moving the chains.
But what about Conner’s injured hip?
He will try to play, his determination and courage leading him toward the field — no matter what the doctors say, no matter the amount of pain he’s feeling.
Will he be 100 percent? Not sure. But his health is the key to the game for Pitt. Chris James and Bennett ran well last week against Syracuse, but can you imagine Pitt winning at Miami without the ACC’s leading rusher?
I can’t.
Let’s assume the national TV spotlight will awaken the sleeping Hurricanes, who almost upset Florida State two weeks ago on the same Sun Life Stadium field they will share with Pitt.
Miami 35, Pitt 24.

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November 21, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Another one-point Pitt-Syracuse game. Why not?

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Picking a winner in Pitt’s final home game Saturday against Syracuse isn’t easy. At least, not for me.
Pitt’s defense doesn’t look like it can make enough stops to win.
Syracuse’s offense doesn’t appear to have enough elements to take advantage of its opponent.
I was leaning toward Pitt until coach Paul Chryst said offensive lineman Adam Bisnowaty (foot) won’t play. Bisnowaty plays tackle and guard in most games — and does it well — so his loss is significant.
That leaves Pitt without two linemen who started the season among its top five. Center Artie Rowell (knee) hasn’t played since the second week of the season.
The good news: Pitt is better equipped to handle such absences than it was two years ago. Redshirt freshman Jaryd Jones-Smith has played extensively, even started and played all the way through the Virginia game. Another redshirt freshman, Alex Officer, is the starting center.
“It’s nice that Jaryd has a lot of valuable snaps under his belt,” Chryst said. “Dorian (Johnson) wasn’t that fortunate in his first start (last year at Georgia Tech).
“We have a ways to go certainly as a team, but depth is important.”
Prediction: The past two Pitt/Syracuse games have been decided by one point, so don’t expect a blowout. Expect both teams to play hard, and expect a Pitt victory.
Doak Walker Award semifinalist James Conner and Tyler Boyd will be the difference. It’s time.
Pitt 28, Syracuse 27

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November 14, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Look for Pitt to keep its bowl hopes alive

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It’s sunny and cold and the sky is Carolina blue here in Durham, N.C., but that doesn’t clear up the fog surrounding this ACC game scheduled for Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C.
This one is tough to figure.
Pitt’s game against North Carolina could be a season-defining encounter, with Pitt needing to win two of its final three to reach a bowl.
A loss to the Tar Heels will force Pitt (4-5, 2-3) to win two in a row, including knocking off the Hurricanes in Miami two days after Thanksgiving, to earn those all-important extra days of practice next month.
A victory creates the possibility of back-to-back 7-6 seasons (an almost stunning result considering the current 1-5 slide).
There’s been a lot of talk about Tyler Boyd’s comments in a Trib article this week in which he questioned some players’ determination “to go all out.”
Coach Paul Chryst said the fallout created good player-player and player-coach dialogue that could serve to galvanize the team.
Perhaps.
But Pitt wasn’t a broken team in terms of relationships and camaraderie before this week. Chryst and his staff have done a good job of building team unity. I doubt Boyd, who is as bright as he is honest and loyal, could alter that by talking to a reporter.
Besides, it’s reasonable to assume that if Boyd made those remarks to an adult he barely knows, he might have said something similar previously in the company of his friends and teammates.
Anyway, that’s my take.
I’d be more concerned about Boyd limping gingerly around the facility this week. Chryst didn’t indicate his best receiver is injured, which is good news because Pitt will need all of its stars healthy to outscore the Tar Heels.
Pitt is desperate, but the schedule is in its favor, with consecutive games against two of the worst teams in the ACC (Syracuse comes to Heinz Field next week).
Pitt’s offense has been functioning well the past two weeks (when it wasn’t fumbling against Georgia Tech or failing to manage the clock properly against Duke).
Plus, I can’t get over that fact that North Carolina’s defense is bad. Really bad.
– 70 vs. East Carolina (fourth place in the AAC).
– 50 each against good — not great — Clemson and Notre Dame teams.
– 90 combined against Georgia Tech and Miami.
Pitt’s defense has its own problems (107 points, 1,050 yards the past two weeks), but I think the Panthers have more and better offensive weapons.
Make it Pitt, 38-31. Betcha didn’t know Chryst has won four of his past five games away from Heinz Field.
Boyd catches the game-winner in the final seconds. Why not throw some more drama into the mix? In my business, you always root for the most compelling story.

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November 11, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Off-the-field and on-the-field Pitt news

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Three Pitt football players are making their mark at the university in ways outside the locker room.
Junior center Artie Rowell, who is out for the season with a knee injury, has been named one of 15 student-athlete representatives in the Power 5 conferences’ 80-person committee on autonomy. The committee was created by the NCAA this year to consider legislation specifically geared to the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC.
Rowell, a business finance major, is president of Pitt’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC).
Also, senior safety Ray Vinopal and sophomore quarterback Chad Voytik — both finance majors — were named to the Capital One Academic All-District 2 team.
Vinopal graduated with a 3.34 grade-point average and is pursuing his MBA in Pitt’s Katz Graduate School of Business. Voytik has a 3.76 grade-point average.
Both players will be placed on the ballot for Academic All-America consideration.
On the field, sophomore safety Terrish Webb’s season-ending ankle surgery may weaken the secondary and special teams.
Webb didn’t play against Duke after hurting his ankle the week before against Georgia Tech. Duke quarterback Anthony Boone completed 23 of 31 pass attempts for 266 yards and three touchdowns. Also, Duke’s DeVon Edwards returned a kickoff 99 yards — the only touchdown Pitt’s special teams have allowed this season.
Coach Paul Chryst hoped to avoid surgery for Webb.
“We went a stretch to see if (Webb’s ankle) would start healing on its own and it looked like we had to assist that a little bit,” Chryst said.
Reggie Mitchell moved back to safety in the new configuration last week while freshman Avonte Maddox started at cornerback for Mitchell. Another freshman — Patrick Amara — played nickel back against Duke.

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November 4, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Lots of blame to go around after Pitt’s fifth loss in six games

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Paul Chryst was right.
Pitt didn’t lose to Duke solely because Chris Blewitt missed a 26-yard field goal.
But he also was wrong when he said the game didn’t come down to one or two plays. Actually, it did come down to Blewitt’s attempt with two seconds to go. Good, Pitt wins; No good, overtime.
But what Chryst meant was this:
Pitt had plenty of chances to make sure the game didn’t hinge on Blewitt’s foot before and after he missed.
The defense, which did play better in the second half, gave up four touchdowns before halftime, two with freshman cornerback Avonte Maddox covering All-ACC wide receiver Jamison Crowder without help.
Hold that number to three touchdowns or three and a field goal and Pitt has a better chance to win.
Plus, Duke needed only seven total snaps in both overtime periods to score two additional touchdowns. Too easy.
Another factor was forcing Blewitt to kick from the right hash mark on the last snap of the fourth quarter by running a quarterback sweep from the Duke 11 on the previous play. Pitt would have been better off calling a quarterback sneak.
Chryst’s explanation for the sweep wasn’t clear.
“With that personnel group in, clock was going, it gave us a run we had numbers on, we felt, and also a chance to run into the short side and get the ball out of bounds, which we weren’t able to do that,” he said. “That was the thought process.
“We had a lighter personnel group in. We had a chance for yards. I thought we still had to keep moving and yet at that time we were in (field-goal) range and wanted to protect the right to attempt it.”
I’m not sure why it was necessary to run out of bounds when Pitt had a timeout remaining. Pitt used it when quarterback Chad Voytik was stopped for a 3-yard gain before he got to the sideline. Duke also called two timeouts, so Blewitt was iced – times three.
Why not just run into the middle of the line to set up an easy attempt with the ball centered between the uprights?
Chryst talked about gaining yards. Even if the ball never left the 11, that’s only a 28- or 29-yard field goal. Maybe the clock wouldn’t run to 0:00, but Pitt only would have needed a squib kickoff and a tackle to end the game.
I asked former NFL punter and holder Josh Miller about the importance of the placement of the ball for kickers. Miller, who spent his 12-year career with the Steelers, Patriots and Titans and held for New England kicker Adam Vinatieri in Super Bowl XXXIX, suggested Chryst knew where Blewitt likes to have the ball spotted.
“I’m sure they asked Blewitt what side he wants it on,” Miller said in response to my direct message on Twitter. “I would hope they did.
“The hold is everything on all kicks. He looked up, slowed down and aimed that kick. Sad, he will make that kick 99 times out of a 100. We just saw the one.”
He added, “Not an easy kick that close and wide.”
By the way, Blewitt’s miss was his first this season that wasn’t blocked. In two seasons, Pitt has received three points in 25 of Blewitt’s 31 attempts.
In the two of the past three seasons, Pitt has missed two late, makeable field goals that would have defeated two good teams. In 2012, it was Notre Dame, with Kevin Harper missing from 33 yards in the second overtime.
We’ll never know for sure, but victories in those games might have changed the public’s perception of the Pitt program and where it’s headed.
I believe Chryst has Pitt pointed in the right direction in his third season, but 6-7, 7-6 and wherever the current 4-5 ends up may not be enough to quiet the masses.

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October 31, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Chryst calls on another freshman in the wake of Webb’s injury

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Pitt coach Paul Chryst sat down with a couple reporters Thursday for a final briefing before the Duke game Saturday.
Here are the highlights:
– You’ve heard by now that strong safety Terrish Webb is out with an ankle injury. Freshman Patrick Amara will take his place. From what the coaches say, Amara’s probably not losing any sleep over the assignment.
When I met Amara at Big 33 practice this summer for a story I was writing about his tough childhood, he was well-spoken, polite and sure of himself — and unafraid to tell his very personal tale.
Secondary coach Troy Douglas said Amara will be “fine” in the Duke game, and Douglas praised him repeatedly for his knack for finding the football. Amara started the Virginia Tech game when Pitt opened in the nickel; he had his first career interception 12 days earlier at Virginia.
“I think he has done some good stuff; that was as the nickel,” Chryst said. “He got snaps, although there are going to be different snaps this week for him.
“He’s certainly getting better, so I’m looking forward to seeing him step up.”
– Chryst waited until the fifth week of the season to burn freshman wide receiver Adonis Jennings’ redshirt, but he has barely been on the field long enough to break a sweat. Jennings has recorded three receptions for 21 yards in Chryst’s desperate attempt to find another option in the passing game other than Tyler Boyd.
When he was asked if he felt comfortable with the decision not to save Jennings’ redshirt, Chryst acknowledged it was “a good question.”
“You wish (Jennings’ progress) would come faster,” he said. “I don’t second-guess playing him at all. But you would like and he would like, I’m sure, (to play more). But you have to do all things to put yourself in those positions.”
Chryst said he appreciates the efforts of receivers such as Manasseh Garner and Kevin Weatherspoon, but he said, “If we are going to be better, we have to be better (at wide receiver).”

Prediction: Duke 30, Pitt 21.
In the end, Duke wide receiver Jamison Crowder will be too difficult to handle.

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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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