January 3, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola
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Judging from my email box and Twitter notifications, Pitt fans are angry.
You can’t blame them after an epic collapse Friday at the Armed Forces Bowl.
Losing a 25-point lead to unranked Houston in less than a quarter was inexcusable and even irresponsible.
Did I mention that Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr., not Peyton Manning, led his team to 292 yards in less than a quarter (a nearly 1,200-yard pace), plus four touchdowns and a two-point conversion?
But defeat easily could have been avoided.
All the Pitt defense had to do was stay behind the pass catchers or perhaps turn in the right direction occasionally. Somebody, somewhere could have stepped up and made one play.
All the hands team had to do was recover one of two onside kicks. It’s not like they were surprised by them.
All the offense had to do was get in field-goal range (one more catch by Tyler Boyd would have done it).
If any of those things had happened, Pitt probably would have had back-to-back bowl victories and winning seasons.
But here’s the best part, the part that matters:
The two most important people to the football program — Chancellor Patrick Gallagher and coach Pat Narduzzi – were there to see first-hand what has become a culture of losing at Pitt.
It started long before Paul Chryst arrived,
* With the arrests of so many Dave Wannstedt players.
* With the one-point loss to Cincinnati after blowing a 21-point lead that would have yielded a Big East championship.
* With the loss to Youngstown State in Chryst’s first game after he suspended six players.
* With the close defeats this season to Iowa, Virginia, Duke, North Carolina and Houston. And don’t forget Akron and the five fumbles in the first quarter against Georgia Tech.
That adds up to 6-7.
Now, Narduzzi has seen with his own eyes how Pitt seems bogged down by losing that just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
After speaking with so many Michigan State players at the Cotton Bowl on Thursday, I’m convinced Pitt hired the right guy. He’s smart, savvy and he earns respect and trust from his players. That last one really mattered to the Spartans.
Put that Houston loss aside, Pitt fans. It will mean nothing in a day or two and less than nothing if Narduzzi is successful next season.
December 21, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola
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It’s strange to admit, but true.
Paul Chryst is becoming yesterday’s news.
The next chapter of Pitt football is still being formulated in the minds of the coach search committee, but in the meantime there is a game to play in less than two weeks.
The players had their last practice before Christmas on Saturday, and afterwards interim coach Joe Rudolph canceled Sunday’s scheduled session.
The team will take off next week and reconvene next weekend before leaving Dec. 29 for the Armed Forces Bowl and a game against Houston on Jan. 2.
Quarterback Chad Voytik said he has seen so much Houston video, he feels like he’s been watching it for two years — not two weeks.
“I feel like I know them inside-out now,” he said.
The difference for Voytik is Chryst is no longer his quarterback coach. Now, it’s another former Wisconsin quarterback, graduate assistant Jon Budmayr.
Voytik and teammates James Conner and Reggie Mitchell chatted with reporters Saturday, and a topic of conversation was how Chryst said goodbye.
I was there in 2010 and 2011 for the final days of Dave Wannstedt and Todd Graham. Many grim-faced players looked ready to cry or tear up a room.
This time, they understand.
“It was a distraction when (Chryst) was on the fence about (leaving),” Voytik said. “But it was just that one day. Weâ€™ve turned it around and I think we are having some good practices and prepping for Houston pretty well.”
Voytik said Chryst kept the team updated about Wisconsin’s interest in him throughout the process.
“We respect coach for how he did it and how he handled it,” he said.
“We have a tight relationship and probably will for the rest of our lives,” Conner said.
Mitchell compared Chryst’s situation with his own. Mitchell, a Shady Side Academy graduate, transferred from Wisconsin to return home to Pittsburgh, just as Chryst is returning home to Wisconsin.
“Coach Chryst met with us almost every day, keeping us informed about what was going on,” Mitchell said.
“I’m happy he was communicating every day. That kept down the stress of the whole situation.
“It’s a dream job for him. It wouldnâ€™t be right as a man if I wasn’t happy for him.”
Conner added, “I will always have love for him. If it wasn’t for coach Chryst I wouldn’t be here.”
But Conner also displayed a strong grasp on reality when he said, “No matter who the coach is, itâ€™s the players that really matter.”
One final note:
Rudolph said he was “humbled” when five players – Voytik, Conner, J.P. Holtz, Adam Bisnowaty and Artie Rowell – met with Chancellor Patrick Gallagher on his behalf. Rudolph hopes to be a candidate for the job vacated by Chryst.
“That’s pretty neat that that group is together and standing up for things,” he said. “It reflects back to the fact they’re a team and they have some pride with what they feel, about what theyâ€™re doing and how theyâ€™re going about doing it.
“Their vision and expectations are big. That’s one of the things you see in a team where you say, `OK, they are taking ownership of this.’ ”
December 12, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola
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There is no official word yet, but it appears Paul Chryst is leaving Pitt after three seasons.
The Milwaukee (Wisc.) Journal Sentinel reported Friday morning that Paul Chryst is “poised” to become the next coach at Wisconsin, his alma mater.
Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez moved swiftly to replace Gary Andersen, who resigned Wednesday to accept the head coaching job at Oregon State.
Chryst, 49, was 19-19 in three seasons at Pitt after replacing Todd Graham, who left for Arizona State after one season. Pitt hasn’t had a coach see a recruiting class through to the end of its senior season since Dave Wannstedt in 2009.
Accepting the Wisconsin job represents a return home for Chryst, who was born in Madison, played quarterback for Wisconsin from 1986-1988 and was named the Badgers’ offensive coordinator in 2005, a position he held through the 2011 season when he was hired at Pitt.
Chryst helped produce two All-Americans at Pitt — defensive tackle Aaron Donald, a consensus choice last year, and sophomore running back James Conner, who was named second-team Walter Camp All-American on Thursday.
Chryst has led Pitt to three consecutive bowl berths, including the Armed Forces Bowl Jan. 2 in Fort Worth, Texas, where the Panthers will play Houston.
December 4, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola
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December 3, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola
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Here’s what I think about that Pitt/Penn State bowl game everyone 150 miles west of State College seems to want:
Penn State really doesn’t want it.
It prefers the Pinstripe and the glitz and glamour of New York City and Yankee Stadium. And I believe Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany and the Yankees — the bowl’s sponsors — share that sentiment. Meanwhile, the Pinstripe has no interest in matching two 6-6 teams. After all, it is an ACC Tier 1 bowl (no sarcasm intended).
Penn State fans prefer the Pinstripe to Detroit’s Quick Lane Bowl. It’s closer to home after many of them blew their vacation budgets on the trip to Ireland at the start of the season. Detroit in December? Really?
The matchup still could happen, but it’s a lose-lose proposition for Penn State. Let me explain:
Penn State does not fear Pitt. That’s not my point. Truth be told, Penn State’s defense would be a formidable challenge for a Pitt offense that has scored at least 28 points in each of the past five games and features the nation’s fourth-most productive running back in James Conner. Plus, a wide receiver, Tyler Boyd, who Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg would love to have on the other end of his passes.
Penn State, with big-time stars Mike Hull at linebacker and Anthony Zettel at defensive tackle, allowed 20 or fewer points in eight of 12 games. Penn State’s defense is better than any Pitt has faced in the ACC since October.
Hull vs. Conner … Bring it on.
But this is not the year Penn State coach James Franklin prefers to play such a high-profile game with so many perceptions at stake. The Nittany Lions aren’t very good; they will be better, presumably, in 2016 when the series is scheduled to resume at Heinz Field.
Many people would love to see the first Pitt/Penn State bowl game, but I get the sense Pitt fans are the only ones making noise about it. If Notre Dame doesn’t mind going back to the Pinstripe for a second consecutive year, Penn State fans would prefer a renewal of their series with the Irish that was played through most of the 1980s and into the early ’90s.
I get the sense Franklin would rather take his team west — Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif., for example — where a loss to a Pac-12 team may not hurt his recruiting efforts back east.
A loss to Pitt would delay his plans to dominate the state of Pennsylvania (again, no sarcasm intended).
In my opinion, Pitt isn’t going back to Detroit without Penn State; it played there last year and defeated MAC champion Bowling Green. Perhaps Pitt’s 4-4 ACC record is worth more this season.
Pitt might be hoping to wedge itself into one of those five bowls tied to the Big 12, which has only six eligible schools at the moment. TCU to the national semifinals and Baylor to the Cotton Bowl could send Pitt to the Cactus Bowl against a Pac-12 team (no, not Arizona State). I don’t know … on paper, that sounds like a longshot.
All that being said, there are still some very smart people who are projecting Pitt/PSU for the Quick Lane. Only a few hours before I posted this blog Tuesday night, I got an excited text message from a well-connected media guy, based in Pennsylvania, who wrote: “Oh, Lord, have mercy … Brett McMurphy (ESPN’s well-respected and knowledgeable college football analyst) changed his bowl pick to PSU and Pitt in Detroit.”
College Football News, an offshoot of Scout.com, predicted the same.
Then, there is this opinion that seemed to come out nowhere: Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com and Mark Schlabach of ESPN are predicting Pitt to the New Orleans Bowls to play Sun Belt runner-up Louisiana-Lafayette.
Another ESPN expert, David Hale, is also going in that direction, predicting Pitt getting shoved from the ACC bowls and ending up elsewhere. His post did not identify a landing site for the Panthers, but I don’t blame him.
Joe Giglio, a veteran ACC scribe who writes for the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer, believes enough dominos will fall in Pitt’s favor to send it to one of the ACC bowls — Quick Lane, Independence, Military or Bitcoin.
From what I’ve read and heard, I’m leaning toward Giglio’s way of thinking, but don’t ask me which bowl.
Why go out on a shaky limb? Ask me Sunday night. I’ll know then.
November 26, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola
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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.
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?
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.
November 21, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola
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November 14, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola
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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.
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.
November 11, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola
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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.
November 4, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola
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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.