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December 9, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola

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Pitt bowl game means difference between 6-7 and 7-6

Maybe I wasn’t listening well enough, but I didn’t hear much complaining about Pitt getting an invitation to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
I guess fans are just happy it’s not Birmingham — which gets a bad rap, by the way. Most of them are aware that with a losing record (3-5) in the ACC, Pitt is fortunate to have a 13th game on its schedule. Even if it’s a weekday game in Detroit on the day after Christmas.
The per-team payout is $750,000, and only seven bowls pay less. Even the BBVA Compass Bowl will offer Houston of the American Athletic Conference $900,000.
But it’s not about the money. Coach Paul Chryst just wants the extra practices to start making preparations for next season when he’ll have to start over with a new quarterback.
I’m sure athletic director Steve Pederson tried to politic and call in some favors, but he just didn’t have enough ammunition. Even though Pitt owns impressive victories against Duke and Notre Dame, losses to Navy, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Miami — good teams; nothing special — were too much to overcome. Turn around just two of those five, and Pitt’s bowl fortunes would have been greatly improved.
Pitt and Maryland are the only two of 11 bowl-bound ACC schools with a losing conference record. Maryland was targeted long ago for the Military Bowl in Annapolis, Md., for a logical reason of geography. Pitt might have liked that game, but Maryland is playing Marshall (who cares?) and the Panthers get MAC champion Bowling Green (tougher opponent).
Pitt is 29-3 all-time against MAC schools, and one of those was a loss to Bowling Green in the 2008 opener. If Pitt had won that game, it would have won 10 games two years in row (the Panthers also did it in 2009).
That’s history, though. Chryst wants only to live in the moment. A victory against Bowling Green would give Pitt (6-6 overall) its first winning season since 2010 when all the coaching turmoil erupted.
There is a big difference between 6-7 and 7-6.


December 1, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola

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Trying to make some sense out of Pitt’s bowl hopes

There have been several questions recently about Pitt’s bowl hopes.
As there should be.
Pitt ended its regular season 2-4, landing on the soft, 4-2 cushion it built over the first half of the season. Plus, there are 78 bowl-eligible schools for 70 slots.
OK. The math looks bad, but if you’re counting on that Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Dec. 26 in Detroit — and I know you are — you need not fret.
Despite its problems, Pitt’s victories against Duke  (10-2 and headed to the ACC championship game) and Notre Dame (8-4) will carry some weight. Although it’s true Pitt fans typically don’t travel well to bowl games (and the day after Christmas in Detroit doesn’t sound like a party), several other teams have similar travel problems.
Of those 78 teams with the requisite six victories, five are from the Sun Belt and seven from the MAC, all hoping to get a bid. (Sun Belt champion Louisiana-Lafayette is already making plans for the New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 21.). If it comes down to Pitt, Troy, Texas State, Louisiana-Monroe and Central Michigan, my money’s on Pitt.
I can say representatives from the AdvoCare V100 Bowl (Shreveport, La., Dec. 31) were sniffing around Pitt before the loss to Miami, but that’s an ACC bowl (No. 7 pick). The ACC leads the nation with 11 bowl-eligible teams, but nine are ahead of Pitt. The bowl holding the eighth ACC choice (Military Bowl on Dec. 27 in Annapolis, Md.) might be a landing spot for Maryland, at least logistically.
Army (3-8) is leaving a Poinsettia Bowl berth on the table, but that game is in San Diego on Dec. 26. Too far from Pittsburgh? Perhaps.
Has anyone mentioned the Pinstripe Bowl? The game (Dec. 28 in Yankee Stadium) is ticketed for the seventh Big 12 team, but that conference only has six bowl-eligible teams. Thank you, WVU.
That’s also the case in Detroit where the pizza guys would have preferred the eighth Big Ten team, but there are only seven.  Thank you, Penn State.
And, because you asked, a fourth return trip to the BBVA Compass Bowl (Jan. 4 in Birmingham, Ala.) isn’t theoretically impossible. Yeah, really. That bowl, which gets a new sponsor in 2015, is counting on the fifth team from the American Athletic Conference (you remember it as the Big East), but the AAC has only four. The AAC’s Rutgers (5-6) can gain bowl eligibility with a victory Saturday against visiting South Florida. Wouldn’t that be a nice parting gift for Rutgers, which is leaving for the Big Ten next year? Thank you, Rutgers (in advance).
Of course, closed-door meetings, secret telephone conversations and athletic directors and coaches calling in favors can and will change several bowl scenarios.
Note to Steve Pederson: If you need anyone to take notes at those meetings, I’m available.

November 29, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola

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Bad news for Pitt: No snow, no rain, no bitter cold

Bad news for Pitt on Saturday – the newly resodded turf at Heinz Field is dry, and temperatures are in the 30s.
If any Miami players find it difficult to endure what is normal weather for November — in any venue, north of Florida — the Hurricanes are in real trouble.
Actually, Pitt’s in the most trouble, with the left side of its offensive line — Adam Bisnowaty and Cory King (back injuries) – and wide receiver Devin Street (elbow and ankle) not expected to play on Senior Day. Street would give Pitt a speed element to counteract Miami’s athleticism, which isn’t just at wide receiver. Plus, he’s a senior and a team leader.
I try not to tell Paul Chryst how to run his program — he doesn’t tell me how or what I should write — but if I’m Pitt’s coach, I let Street get up in front of his teammates for a pregame, Rockne-type speech. I’d like to have video of that.
Pitt will need an exceptional effort to win, but expect a close game. Every Pitt game since New Mexico — that’s nine in a row — has been decided by 11 points or fewer. Five were one-possession differences, and Pitt is 3-2 in those games.

November 26, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola

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Busy December for Donald

Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, a finalist for four national trophies, will attend at least three award ceremonies in three cities during the week of Dec. 8.
So far, Donald is a finalist for the Lombardi, Outland, Bednarski and Nagurski awards.
He will be in Charlotte on Dec. 9 for the Nagurski event, along with the other two finalists — cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State and Lamarcus Joyner of Florida State.
Accompanied by school officials, he will then board an airplane for the Lombardi on Dec. 11 in Houston.  His competition there will be linebackers Anthony Barr of UCLA and C.J. Mosley of Alabama and Missouri defensive end Michael Sam.
After that, he heads to Lake Buena Vista, Fla., for The Home Depot College Football Awards Dec. 12 where he will be joined by 22 other finalists who are up for nine awards. The Outland and Bedarik trophies will be handed out there. Texas A&M and Florida State have four and three nominations each. Donald is one of four players — quarterback Johnny Manziel, A.J. McCarron and Jameis Winston are the others – who are finalists for two.
Barr and Mosley are the other finalists for the Bednarik; offensive linemen Jake Matthews of Texas A&M and Cyril Richardson of Baylor will be Donald’s competition for the Outland.
Donald  is also a semifinalist for the Lott IMPACT award, and those finalists, who will attend the banquet Dec. 8 in Newport Beach, Calif., will be announced Wednesday.
Oh, one more …
The Heisman Trophy will be awarded in New York City on Dec. 14. If Donald has an exceptional game Friday against Miami, don’t be surprised if he gets an invitation. Donald’s dominance around the line of scrimmage and his infestation of opposing backfields have opened a lot of eyes around the country.
That would make five banquets in seven days. By the end of the week, I’ll bet Donald will be relieved to be back at the Pitt cafeteria.

November 24, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola

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Final thoughts from Syracuse

Quick blog post before boarding a plane in Syracuse for a trip to Philadelphia and, finally, home:
It was pointed to me this morning that, for all the positive vibes from Pitt’s 17-16 victory at the Carrier Dome on Saturday, the Panthers are still in next-to-last place in the Coastal Division of the ACC.
Plus, a loss to Miami will  mean Pitt finishes the regular season 6-6 for the third consecutive season.
Is that progress?
I can’t say that it is until I see how performs in its bowl game — the last two were disasters in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala. — and what the spring holds.
(Just as an aside, I think the quarterback situation will be interesting with coach Paul Chryst choosing from among Chad Voytik, who will entering his sophomore season, and two incoming freshmen — Wade Freebeck and Adam Bertke — who will not arrive on campus until after they graduate from high school in June.)
The bottom line is Chryst has the program pointed in the right direction, building an attitude among his players of accountability and responsibility. You had to like the way that cornerback Lafayette Pitts reacted to getting benched in the first quarter of the North Carolina game. He said he wasn’t working hard enough and needed to get better, and it was Pitts who knocked away Syracuse’s final fourth-down pass that ensured the victory.
It starts with Chryst, a humble man who refused to take credit for calling the timeout that prevented Syracuse from scoring a decisive touchdown on a fake field-goal attempt. There are a lot of college and NFL coaches who would step forward and say, “Hey, look at me.”
Bill Cowher in Super Bowl XXX comes to mind when he walked up to the line judge and asked him how he liked the successful onside kick call.
Chryst also knows a thing or two about offense. Having quarterback Tom Savage go to the short drops and quick releases wasn’t a genius move — many coaches would have done the same thing – but it worked.
That’s what matters.

November 23, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola

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No snow in Syracuse — yet — as Pitt prepares to meet Syracuse

Arrived safely at the Carrier Dome Saturday morning, even though the nice lady on the television machine this morning was using phrases such as “bitter cold” and “snow squalls.” I only saw a trace of flakes on my car (didn’t need the scraper).
Yet, it’s windy and cold outside the Carrier Dome  (not much warmer inside, truth be told, but brighter than I remember from last year), and I wonder what we might encounter after the game. Reminds of the 1993 Big East Tournament when I walked to Madison Square Garden on dry sidewalks, only to emerge at the end of the day and be greeted by 2 feet of snow. Found a cabbie, who got me safely to the hotel, but he drove through snow-clogged streets like he was trying out for the Indianapolis 500.
Pitt could use similar speed Saturday against Syracuse (how’s that for a transition, Dejan?) while trying for the second week in a row to become bowl-eligible. Here are the keys:
Protect Tom Savage.
Cover punts.
I predict a big day for one of the two Pitt freshmen (Tyler Boyd or James Conner).
Final score (watch, but don’t bet): Pitt 27, Syracuse 24.
Pitt is hampered by injuries, most of them caused by big hits in games and the natural wear and tear of 10 games and a month of preseason practices. But back injuries are becoming a nagging concern for Pitt.
Starting offensive linemen Adam Bisnowaty and Cory King won’t play Saturday for that reason. They didn’t even make the trip, which has to be especially depressing for King, a senior.
Bisnowaty will miss for the third time in four weeks; King, who also has a hamstring issue, hasn’t played since the Virginia Tech game Oct. 12. Plus, Ejuan Price, an emerging pass rusher, has a back injury that will keep him out for the fifth consecutive game after he started the previous four. A concussion kept freshman defensive back Titus Howard at home, but Trenton Coles, who missed last week for the same reason, will dress.
Look for senior wide receiver Devin Street to wrap that injured ankle tightly and try to play. Street has played this season with passion, and with his college opportunities dwindling, he doesn’t want to let this one get away from him. But Pitt will need him even more next Friday against Miami.
Some trivia before signing off: Pitt is playing in the Carrier Dome for the second year in a row for the first time since 1974-75. Is that Pitt’s penance for having two nationally televised, prime-time home games this season (Florida State and Notre Dame)?
For updates on the game throughout the day, follow @JDiPaola_Trib on Twitter. I am also planning to join Tab Douglas on 93.7-FM The Fan Saturday night at 11.



November 22, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola

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Carrier Dome protects Pitt/Syracuse from predicted snowfall

I knew something was up when I got in the rental car Friday afternoon at Hancock International Airport in Syracuse and right there on the front seat — taunting me — was an snow and ice scraper.
Yes, Syracuse meteorologists are predicting lack-effect snow for Saturday, perhaps as much as 4 inches. But unless the Carrier Dome roof springs a leak, it won’t affect Pitt’s game against the Orange  (kickoff: 12:30 p.m., Saturday).
Pitt in the dome
Pitt is 6-10-1 at the noisy Carrier Dome since it opened in 1980. Two of those losses were in double overtime. The first in 2000 ruined Pitt’s best start to a season under former coach Walt Harris (4-0); the second (2004) was the Panthers’ only loss in a 6-1 stretch that led to a Fiesta Bowl bid — the school’s first BCS appearance in 22 years.
A loss in 2013 could lead to Pitt’s first season without a bowl since 2007. Pitt needs to win at least one of its final two games to become bowl-eligible. Pitt returns home next Friday to play Miami, only the Hurricanes’ second trip into Pittsburgh since 2003.
Dome trivia
Here are a few facts about the Carrier Dome, the only domed stadium in the Northeast and the largest structure of its kind on a college campus in the U.S., according to Syracuse’s website.
– Syracuse football and men’s and women’s basketball and lacrosse play in the Carrier Dome.
– It has been the host to numerous events, including NCAA tournaments and championships in basketball, lacrosse and track and field, high school football playoff games, NBA preseason games and ice skating shows.
– Concerts?  To name a few: Elton John, Billy Joel, Rod Stewart, U2, Genesis, the Rolling Stones, Garth Brooks, The Who, Neil Diamond and Pink Floyd.  The Billy Graham Crusade stopped by in 1989 and a celebration honoring the life of Martin Luther King Jr. is held annually.
– Four years ago, the school proclaimed that 27 million patrons have attended events at the Carrier Dome. Capacity is 49,262.

November 22, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola

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Savage shows he cares about his teammates

Here’s an interesting story that describes, in simple terms, the character of Pitt quarterback Tom Savage and why his teammates play hard for him:
Long before Savage “tweaked” his knee (his word) in the North Carolina game, he decided to wear a brace on his left knee. He told Pitt’s trainers he wears it mainly for comfort and a sense of security.
But he didn’t ask for the brace until this season, even though he was practicing every day last year after transferring. When head trainer Rob Blanc asked why he waited so long, Savage said he wasn’t eligible to play, so he didn’t want to use a brace that could have helped another player.
Who’s at tackle?
Coach Paul Chryst said he knows who will play offensive left tackle in Syracuse, but, of course, he won’t say. The choices are Adam Bisnowaty, who has a back injury, senior Juantez Hollins and freshman Dorian Johnson. Hollins replaced Johnson last week, but Chryst made sure he praised both players. He also pointed out what they have done wrong, too, just to be fair.
“There are a couple plays (Hollins) wants back that we can’t have happen again,” he said, “but I thought he matched up well. He has had a good week of practice. I thought Dorian had some really good snaps. He got exposed a couple times at Georgia Tech, but I thought he learned from that.”
I’m sure most fans think Johnson should play because he’s the future, but Chryst — correctly – will play the guy who gives him the best chance to win Saturday. He’ll worry about the future, you know, in the future.
No pouting
Left guard Cory King hasn’t played since Oct. 12 after suffering back and hamstring injuries. It’s an unfortunate story for the fifth-year senior, who sacrificed his junior year for the good of the team, moving to the unfamiliar tackle position, even though guard is his natural position.
“You know (not playing) is bothering him,” Chryst said. “He is doing everything he can to get back. But he doesn’t have a woe-is-me approach. You can either give energy  or take energy and he still gives energy. “This is a guy who tried to do everything he could to have as good a senior year as possible, and you’re missing out on what you had hoped would be a full season.
“We hope he will be able to finish it on the field.”

November 21, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola

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Knee injury scared Savage, but not enough to keep him out of the game

For a moment, Pitt quarterback Tom Savage thought disaster had struck. When he “tweaked” his knee near the end of the first half Saturday against North Carolina, going down awkwardly, he admitted, “It scared the (heck) out of me.”
X-rays showed the injury wasn’t serious and he returned to throw two touchdown passes in the second half, playing better with a “tweaked” knee than he did before it was “tweaked.” Savage said he never considered sitting out the second half, even while he limped noticeably into the locker room.
“It was up to coach (Paul Chryst), obviously,” Savage said. “He gets the final say, but I wanted to go back out there.”
Two days before Pitt plays Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, there doesn’t seem to be any issues with the knee.
“I feel good,” he said. “Ready to go.”

November 20, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola

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Chryst hopes Pitt isn’t haunted by previous Carrier Dome collapses

Pitt coach Paul Chryst can’t claim to know how his team will perform Saturday at Syracuse.
Who can know?
Pitt started the season 3-1, almost cruelly raising fans’ hopes, but now finds itself in a 2-4 stretch, with only one victory against a respectable team (Notre Dame) since Sept. 28.
At 5-5, Pitt is unpredictable, but also matching  its effort in the past two regular seasons when it took 6-6 records into Birmingham for the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Chryst does know this much, though:
“We can’t have the performance we had last year (at Syracuse),” he said Wednesday morning on the ACC coaches’ conference call. Pitt lost to Syracuse, 14-13, on Oct. 5, 2012. It was the Orange’s first victory against an FBS team in a year and broke the Panthers’ seven-game winning streak in the series.
In that game, a fumble in Syracuse territory by tight end Andrew Carswell (since kicked off the team after an off-season arrest) led to a 52-yard return for a touchdown by the Orange’s Dyshawn Davis.
On the other side of the ball, Pitt moved to the Syracuse 10, 29 and 17 in the second half and had only a 27-yard field goal by Kevin Harper to show for it. Quarterback Tino Sunseri was sacked five times and was called for intentional grounding after Pitt moved to the 17 and looked to be seizing control of the game.
Much of the same problems remain at Pitt. After the loss to Syracuse, Sunseri complained, “We’ve got to be able to figure out the protections.”
This season, Sunseri’s successor Tom Savage has been sacked an unhealthy 37 times and will drag a wobbly knee into the Carrier Dome because of Pitt’s inability to handle a pass rush.
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