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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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September 16, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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DiPaola: It’s time for Pitt to open up the passing game

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Pitt continues to improve its recognition factor, getting ready to take its No. 33 national ranking (40 points in the AP poll) onto the national TV stage Saturday to play Iowa. The game will be telecast on ESPNU, with play-by-play man Adam Amin and analyst John Congemi, a former Pitt quarterback.
This might be a game to pull the passing game out of mothballs. I expect the running game to remain productive, but only to a point. Iowa is No. 6 in the nation in run defense (65.7 yards allowed per game).
Pitt’s running game is fourth (344.3), so it should be an interesting collision, but what if it doesn’t work? That’s where quarterback Chad Voytik and the passing game need to pick up some slack.
Pitt is ranked 120th of 125 FBS schools in passing (101.3), but coach Paul Chryst needs to know he can count on the throwing game.
“You want to be a balanced on offense because there’s going to be games where you’re going to need to be able to run the ball to win, and there’s going to be games where you need to throw the ball to win,” he said. “You want to be able to trust that and go with it.”
It shouldn’t be as tough as it appears for Pitt to throw the football. Opposing defensive coordinators are sure to leave holes in the secondary while trying to account for running back James Conner. It’s time to take advantage of that.
‘SHAKE IT OFF’
By now, if you have a computer, you’ve seen the “Shake It Off” video, performed masterfully by dozens of Pitt athletes. That includes several football players, who displayed more dance moves than even their coaches believed they had.
If the video doesn’t get running back Isaac Bennett a “Dancing With the Stars” audition, I’ll be surprised. (Is that still on TV?)
By last count, the video had almost 80,000 views. Here’s the link:

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September 12, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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DiPaola: Big victory still would leave cloud over Pitt’s potential

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Other than a loss to Florida International (and what a disaster that would be), a victory Saturday on South Beach would leave Pitt fans as clueless about their team and its potential as they were before the season.
Winning won’t prove anything because FIU has been one of the worst teams in the FBS since its 8-5 season in 2011. The Golden Panthers have lost 21 of 26 games.
It’s probably not much fun for the FIU players, but Ryan Nece has a message for them: Playing on a such a woeful team tests your character and, actually, could provide a memorable (if not joyful) experience.
Nece, who will be the game analyst for the FOX Sports 1 telecast of Pitt/FIU, should know. He concluded his seven-year NFL career in 2008 playing for the winless Detroit Lions, the first non-expansion team to lose every game in a full season since World War II.
“It was probably one of the most memorable learning experiences that I ever had in my playing career,” Nece said. “You learn about yourself, you learn about your teammates, and you learn a lot about people who really love the game.
“If you didn’t love it, it was hard to show up and put in the time and effort.”
Nece, who is the son of Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott, did enjoy several winning moments in his career. After starting all four years at UCLA, he was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ rookie of the year in 2002 when they won Super Bowl XXXII.
At UCLA, he got a brief glimpse of a young offensive coordinator named Paul Chryst, who was directing the Oregon State unit at the time.
“He would always keep (the defense) off balance with the screen game,” Nece said. “He knew how to use his backs. He is a run-the-ball-first type of guy. He sets you up with play-action and takes a strike. Tyler Boyd gives him the threat to take that strike.”
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Chryst take some shots with the passing game after he establishes the run with James Conner and Chris James. Pitt still needs to establish better balance with its offense.
Tough to predict this final score, but 31-3 sounds about right. Not nearly as entertaining as next week’s game against Iowa.

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September 10, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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DiPaola: Roberts and Blewitt have names to remember

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Before he committed to enroll at Pitt, center Gabe Roberts got a scouting report on the head coach from a reliable source — his father Bob.
Bob Roberts was an offensive lineman at Platteville (Wisc.) High School on a team that featured a quarterback named Paul Chryst. Yeah, that one.
“My dad said he was very well-rounded,” Roberts said. “Didn’t go out and have fun. Just did his school work and played football. My dad was the exact opposite.”
Bob Roberts and Chryst won a state championship for Platteville in 1983 before Roberts became a police officer and Chryst followed his father George into the coaching profession.
Gabe Roberts’ recruitment is an interesting tale. Wisconsin wanted him to walk-on, but Pitt offered a scholarship. And now Gabe, a sophomore who has missed time with two shoulder injuries the past two years, may become Pitt’s starting center.
“I’m glad that it panned out that I went to the University of Pittsburgh,” Roberts said.
Chryst has yet to name a replacement for center Artie Rowell, who is lost for the season with a torn left ACL, but Roberts played the remainder of the Boston College game after the injury occurred in the second quarter. Redshirt freshman Alex Officer also is competing for the job, and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said Wednesday that a time-share situation wouldn’t surprise him at all.

NAME GAME
If you were watching “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on Monday night, you saw the show’s namesake having some fun with Pitt sophomore Chris Blewitt’s name.
Kimmel showed video of Blewitt hitting a 49-yard field goal against Boston College, but he still insisted that Blewitt’s middle name is Totally.
Almost funny.
Blewitt’s name is an old story. By the way, I have kept my vow to never ask the young kicker about the ironic nature of his name. It’s his name. I’m sure he’s proud of it.
Blewitt is one of the ACC’s best kickers, standing in a tie for second with an average of 10 kick scoring points per game (3 for 3 field goals, 11 of 12 extra points). He was 14 of 18 and 40 of 41 last year, going seven games in a row without a field-goal miss.
Blewitt gave it right back to Kimmel on Wednesday, sending him a photo of himself that says, “Jimmy, don’t blow it.”

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September 10, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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DiPaola: If Pitt/FIU doesn’t make history, Bolerjack and FOX are ready

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Craig Bolerjack knew the little piece of sports memorabilia was somewhere in his office. During our phone conversation Wednesday, it took him only a moment to find it — a piece of rolled-up turf from Pitt Stadium.
Bolerjack, the Emmy-award winning announcer who will call the Fox Sports 1 play-by-play Saturday of the Pitt/Florida International game in Miami, was there for the final game at Pitt Stadium — a 37-27 victory against Notre Dame on Nov. 13, 1999.
“In the final two minutes, fans came onto the field for a piece of turf,” he said. “Officials had to stop play to roll the carpet back.”
I can relate. I was there in June, 1970, for the final Pirates game at Forbes Field, which stood only a few Oakland blocks from the hillside where Pitt Stadium sat for three-quarters of a century. People were actually climbing the left-field scoreboard to scavenge the numbers from the historic structure.
But, excuse me, we’re talking about Bolerjack and Pitt Stadium here.
“I remember walking out of there, thinking,” he said, ” `this place has so much history.
It’s difficult to see an old stadium go down.’  A new stadium smells nice, but there’s nothing like an old stadium.”
Bolerjack asked me if it may be logistically possible to one day build an on-campus football facility at Pitt. I told him not without tearing down a few hospitals and evicting several residents.
(If you care and even if you don’t, here’s where I stand on that old argument: If you don’t tear down Pitt Stadium, you lose The Pete, Jamie Dixon and, most likely, Pitt’s nationally recognized basketball program. You can’t have everything.)
Again back to Bolerjack (lots of digressions today).
He has been behind the microphone for other historic Pitt football moments:
– The last Penn State game at Pitt Stadium (Pitt lost, 20-13, on Sept. 19, 1998).
– The most recent Pitt/Penn State game (a 12-0 Pitt victory at Three Rivers Stadium on Sept. 16, 2000).
– The almost historic game against Virginia Tech on Oct. 28, 2000, when Pitt took a 5-1 record into Blacksburg, Va., and lost, 37-34, on a last-second field goal.
Saturday’s game doesn’t hold the promise of history — unless Pitt loses to the woeful FIU Golden Panthers — but Bolerjack spoke with Pitt coach Paul Chryst and offensive and defensive coordinators Joe Rudolph and Matt House, and all three men are concerned with FIU’s athleticism, especially on defense. Of course, they are. After all, they’re coaches.
Just in case the game is a blowout, Bolerjack said his crew, including analyst and former NFL linebacker Ryan Nece, is ready with some fresh dialogue just in case the score gets out of hand.
“Maybe we’ll break down some of the better-known Cuban restaurants in the city,” he said.

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September 9, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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DiPaola: Pitt’s first crisis, and other notes

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Pitt faces its first crisis of the season this week, with the loss of starting center Artie Rowell, who suffered a season-ending knee injury at Boston College.
Coach Paul Chryst wasn’t eager to discuss his replacement strategy, but he used sophomore Gabe Roberts on Friday when Rowell went down. And he listed Roberts No. 1 on the depth chart this week, ahead of redshirt freshman Alex Officer.
Personally, Chryst was genuinely sorry for the misfortune Rowell and linebacker Ejuan Price (season-ending pectoral injury) are facing.
“I feel bad for Ejuan and Artie (both juniors),” he said. “Their window to play is a defined window. They are missing out on opportunities. Both of those guys love the game and love being a part of the team.
“That’s the thing I feel the most.”
A few notes:
– The Iowa game on Sept. 20 at Heinz Field will start at noon and be televised either on ESPN or ESPNU. The network will decide the venue after Saturday’s games. Iowa and Pitt are 2-0, and the Hawkeyes will be coming off a home game against in-state rival Iowa State.
– Four Pitt players have been chosen ACC players of the week this season: running back James Conner (twice), guard Matt Rotheram, offensive tackle T.J. Clemmings and kicker Chris Blewitt. Impressive stat compiled by Blewitt, a sophomore: He has hit 14 of his past 16 field-goal attempts. Eight occurred outside the 40-yard line.
– If Pitt beats Florida International on Saturday in cozy 20,000-seat FIU Stadum in Miami, the Panthers will be 3-0 for the third time this century (2000 and 2009).
In 2000, they started 4-0 and then lost five of its final eight.
In 2009, Pitt started 3-1 before winning six in a row and finishing with its only double-digit victory total (10-3) in almost three decades.
– Speaking of 1980s Pitt football, I had a nice chat with FIU coach Ron Turner on Monday. As we were saying our goodbyes, Turner said, “Tell, Bill, I said, `Hi.’ ”
Bill is Pitt play-by-play man Bill Hillgrove, who is in his 41st season of calling Pitt football games, dating to the first Johnny Majors era. Turner’s connection: He was  Pitt’s quarterbacks coach under coach Foge Fazio in 1983-1984.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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September 6, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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DiPaola: Voytik plays more than a supporting role in Pitt’s early success

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No one should get the wrong idea about Pitt quarterback Chad Voytik. He is more than a caretaker for this Pitt offense that has now rung up 914 yards, 12 touchdowns and 92 points in two games, the latest of which was a 30-20 victory Friday night at Boston College.
Voytik’s role in all of this should not be diminished, even though James Conner and Tyler Boyd are the stars.
The 22-yard throw to wide receiver Manasseh Garner late in the first half was as accurate as any pass to leave a Pitt quarterback’s hands in the past four seasons.
While Pitt was running the hurry-up offense in the first half’s final 83 seconds, Garner caught the ball over his shoulder with a defender running stride-for-stride with him along the sideline. A play later, Voytik found Boyd in the end zone for a 5-yard score, their second scoring connection of the game.
And get this: Voytik said there was a debate on the sideline about going for the score — they were on the Pitt 20-yard line — or running out the clock. Good call, Paul.
Voytik also hit Boyd with a 15-yard score earlier in the second quarter, even though Boyd was well-covered and he said he was held coming off the line.
“Not everyone makes that play,” Voytik said.
But the most telling quote from the sophomore quarterback was this:
“I don’t know how many times we threw it, but who cares?”
Voytik completed 10 of 20 passes for 134 yards, two scores and an interception. That’s a touchdown/completion ratio in two games of 20/4. Think about that. Every five times a Pitt player has made a catch, it has meant six points. Compare that to the attempts/interception ratio of 33/1.
OK. One of the opponents was Delaware of the FCS, and Boston College has a long way to go before it becomes a successful team. And the schedule gets tougher — not next week against Florida International, but in two weeks back at Heinz Field against Iowa and later when Pitt meets Virginia, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Duke and North Carolina in successive games. Then, and only then, will we know everything there is to know about this Pitt team.
But Voytik is starting games for the first time since high school (three years ago), and he doesn’t seem bothered by the bright lights. He repeated Friday night that for the second game in a row he wasn’t nervous, describing a calm surrounding him that he said springs from being prepared.
What was it Chuck Noll once said? “The only time you feel pressure is when you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Still, the interception by linebacker Steven Daniels did happen, and if the defense didn’t play as well as it did, the game might have  had a different outcome?
How many shouts of “What was he thinking” emerged from living rooms back home as soon as the interception left Voytik’s hands?
Pitt was losing, 7-3, at the time (late in the first quarter), but Voytik came back on the field and led a nine-play, 71-yard scoring drive, punctuated by the first touchdown to Boyd. Pitt never trailed after that.
Critics will say Voytik needs to complete more than half of his passes, and they will be right. Good quarterbacks complete better than 60 percent.
But for the most part, Voytik is doing what coach Paul Chryst asks of him. For now, that’s all that matters.

One more thing before I head home:
Pitt is 2-0 for the first time since the early days of Todd Graham, but this 2-0 has a different feel that that one in 2011.
For one thing, the players like and trust their coach. If I tried to say that in 2011, I would have been wrong.
Also, in 2011, Pitt opened against Buffalo and Maine at  home and struggled, giving up 45 points.
This time, they went on the road and won a conference game. Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Mass., isn’t the most difficult ACC venue for visiting teams. College football is an afterthought here, with New Englanders consumed by the Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics. Only 30,083 showed up on a beautiful Friday night.
But Pitt controlled the game, and once it regained the lead early in the second quarter, it was never threatened again.
As an added bonus for Chryst, Pitt gave up two touchdowns in the second half that will offer the teaching moments he craves. The victory was nice, but there is plenty of room for improvement.

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September 4, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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DiPaola: Pitt won’t cover the 4 points, but its ground game will be the difference against Addazio, Boston College

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Boston College’s Steve Addazio looks like the kind of coach I’d like to cover. Smart, quotable, relaxed. Heck, he conducted his weekly news conference the other day with the New England media while – get this! — sitting down.
“Just talkin’ ball,” he said at one point.
So, when he called Pitt’s ground game “as good a running game as there is in America,” I interpreted it as a legitimate statement. Something a little more than what coaches say just to pump up the other team and make themselves look good if they win the game.
Addazio seems too sure of himself to stoop such a meaningless ploy.
That will be the key, by the way. Pitt can control the game in a hostile environment in Chestnut Hill, Mass., with a strong ground attack that keeps the football out of the hands of BC quarterback Tyler Murphy. He’s the one player who can do the most damage to the Panthers.
Coach Paul Chryst wants to run the ball in any case, and he seems to have a deep, productive stable of backs to do it — James Conner, Isaac Bennett, Rachid Ibrahim and Chris James. Unless,  of course, the 62-0 victory against Delaware was a mirage.
That’s what is so confusing. Is Pitt that good or is Delaware that bad? We won’t know for several weeks beyond the BC game, actually.
The same questions surround Boston College. The Eagles only led UMass, 6-0, at halftime on two field goals before soaring to a 30-7 victory against a MAC team that is probably better than Delaware.
Pitt and Boston College were picked sixth in their respective divisions in the preseason ACC media poll. The loser may be destined to fulfilling that prophecy.
With a victory, Pitt could start 5-1, with dates against Florida International, Iowa, Akron and Virginia preceding a nationally televised ESPN Thursday night game against Virginia Tech at Heinz Field.
Make it Pitt 23, Boston College 20. Pitt won’t cover the spread, but you weren’t planning to bet the game, anyway.

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