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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.

November 16, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola


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Injured Pitt will find a way Saturday against North Carolina

All of sudden, Pitt looks like a team in need of a Band-Aid, perhaps a few of them.
The Panthers will be without five players who would have played important roles in the team’s crucial ACC game Saturday against North Carolina.
The most troubling news — for a couple of reasons — are the back ailments plaguing starting offensive linemen Adam Bisnowaty and Cory King.
King will miss his fifth consecutive game — that’s more than half the season for a guy in his final season at Pitt — and Bisnowaty sits out his second in three weeks. Coaches seem OK with senior Ryan Schlieper moving in for King at left guard. But it’s as much of a shame for King, whose opportunities are dwindling, as it is for the team.
Coaches will look a little closer at Bisnowaty’s replacement at left tackle, freshman Dorian  Johnson.
Johnson, a Belle Vernon graduate, was widely proclaimed as one of Pitt’s most prized recruits in the Class of 2013. He did struggle two weeks ago in Atlanta, but that was in a noisy stadium against Georgia Tech’s Jeremiah Attaochu, one of the ACC’s premier pass rushers.
The same result against North Carolina — a weaker opponent in a friendlier venue — would hurt Pitt’s chances of keeping its offense on track and raise questions about Johnson’s progress in his freshman season.
The other three injured Panthers are backups, but tight end Scott Orndoff (leg) and cornerbacks Trenton Coles and Titus Howard (head injuries) are keys to the cause. Pitt has depth at tight end, but Orndoff has good hands and two touchdowns among his six receptions.
Coles suffered a helmet-to-helmet hit when he collided with teammate Jason Hendricks last week. Howard, one of five Clairton graduates on the team, plays meaningful minutes in the sub-packages. That means starters Lafayette Pitts and K’Waun Williams will be supported by Montour’s E.J. Banks and Jahmahl Pardner, whose first tackles Saturday will be their first of the season. Pardner was a key component in the sub-packages at the start of last season before he suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Enough chatter.
Quick prediction: The offensive line, even without two starters, will block well enough to lead Pitt to a victory. Fortunately, the Tar Heels’ defensive front might be North Carolina’s weakest unit.
Given ample time to survey the field and make decisions, quarterback Tom Savage will have a good day. Maybe a big day for freshman running back James Conner, whose shoulder injury finally has healed.
Pitt 27, North Carolina 21.
One more prediction: Miami will beat Duke today in Durham, pushing the Hurricanes near the head of the class in the Coastal Division of the ACC. Virginia Tech, which lost at Boston College two weeks ago, will assume the division lead and the best chance to get crushed by Florida State in the Dr. Pepper ACC Championship Game on Dec. 7.
For those of you wondering if Pitt has a chance to claim the Coastal title by winning its three remaining games, forget it. The losses to Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech are the back-breaking tiebreakers.

November 10, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola


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Grading out Pitt’s victory against Notre Dame

Pitt’s 28-21 victory Saturday night (almost Sunday morning) against Notre Dame was the program’s biggest moment since the coaching upheavals of 2010 and 2011.  It also marked the Panthers’ second win this season against a team that has won seven games (Duke).
Here are my grades in several important categories:
Offensive line — B
Quarterback Tom Savage was sacked only once — that’s happened only three times all season — and running backs Isaac Bennett and James Conner totaled 92 yards on 27 carries.
Skill — A
Senior wide receiver Devin Street’s 63-yard reception and dive into the pylon in the near corner of the end zone was a testament to his skill and determination. It’s what a leader does. And don’t forget Tyler Boyd’s eight receptions for 85 yards.
Quarterback — B
No interceptions, two touchdowns and 243 yards passing for Savage, who was both a productive passer and an effective caretaker. Savage hasn’t thrown for that many yards since the Duke game two months ago.
Defensive line — B-
Not a lot of pressure on Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees, but the line didn’t prevent the Irish’s deep stable of running backs  to control the game such as it did last week against Notre Dame.
Linebacker — B
Again, nothing spectacular, but Anthony Gonzalez’s coverage on Notre Dame’s final fourth-down incomplete pass sealed the victory.
Defensive backs — A
The two interceptions by safety Ray Vinopal are what everyone is talking about, but his partner at the position, Jason Hendricks, shared the team lead with seven tackles.
Kicking game — B
Pitt’s offense did nothing with Lafayette Pitts’ 50-yard kickoff return, but it was the team’s longest of the season.  No field goal attempts for Chris Blewitt, but he hit all four extra points.

Matchup

Notre Dame center Nick Martin got a lot of help from his guards while holding Donald, Pitt’s All-American candidate at defensive tackle, to one tackle and one quarterback hurry.
 

 

November 8, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola


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Terry Hanratty hasn’t forgotten his Butler roots

– I had two interesting conversations this week with the Hanrattys (father Terry, son Conor), both of whom will be in Heinz Field on Saturday night.
Conor is a backup guard for Notre Dame; Terry is his dad, the former Irish All-American quarterback, who played eight years in the NFL – seven with the Steelers, winning two Super  Bowl rings.
A self-proclaimed diehard Steelers fan, Conor started the first game of his collegiate career last week against Navy. You think Dad wasn’t bustin’? My story will be on triblive.com, Twitter (@JDiPaola_Trib) and Facebook by Friday morning.
Conor may not start Saturday against Pitt — coach Brian Kelly is hoping regular guard Chris Watt has recovered from his knee injury — but he may be the first reserve lineman off the bench.
Terry, who went to Butler High School, still keeps up with his alma mater, but he’s puzzled by the football program’s current hard times.
“When (former coach) Art Bernardi was there, a Division I coach had to stop in Butler every year,” he said. “It was a who’s who. Woody, Ara, Bear. Every coach known to man.”
Hanratty said Bernardi sent 63 players to Division I schools in 20 years. That included Hanratty and his running backs, Rich and Ron Saul, both of whom played a dozen years in the NFL.
Not sure how to look this up, but that 1965 Butler team might have been the only one in history that had three members of its backfield play eight or more years in the NFL.

– I ran across a list ranking the top 50 high school teams in the U.S. Six of them had some interesting connections:

No. 2 Allen (Texas) — Todd Graham coached there.
No. 7 Hoover (Ala.) — Pitt practices there when it plays in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham. Which is more often than not recently. I once spent a January afternoon watching the Hoover basketball team practice because Pitt’s practice was closed.
No. 14 — St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.) –  Pitt 2014 quarterback recruit Wade Freebeck is getting ready to lead STQ on what could be a long playoff run.
Nos. 33, 39 — Upper St. Clair and Central Catholic, the top seeds in the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs. No one will be surprised if coaches Jim Render and Terry Totten guide their teams into Heinz Field for the title game in two weeks.
No. 40 Southlake Carroll  (Texas) — Former Pitt quarterbacks coach Todd Dodge led Southlake Carroll to four state championships.
Here is the entire list:

http://www.studentsports.com/blog/2013/11/04/fab-50-week-11-national-football-rankings/

November 7, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola


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Of a leprechaun, the Notre Dame fight song and knowing the right buttons to push

It all started Monday when Pitt tight end J.P. Holtz expressed his dislike for Notre Dame because of the school’s ”cocky” coaches. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly responded by acknowledging that Pitt doesn’t particularly like Notre Dame.
That day, the “Notre Dame Victory March” blared through the speakers on Pitt’s outdoor practice facility while players went through warmups. Music is played every day, but usually it’s a selection picked by the players. The Notre Dame fight song typically isn’t on the list. “Not a big fan,” offensive lineman Dorian Johnson said.
Then, on Wednesday, while coach Paul Chryst ordered the fight song brought back for an encore performance, student manager Justin Wentz ran onto the field dressed as a leprechaun. Wentz harassed the players while they were warming up for practice before he was playfully (I think) tackled by Aaron Donald.
Chryst seemed to be trying to make the sight and sound of Notre Dame so annoying that by Saturday night, the Pitt players would be ready to fight anything associated with the Irish. At that point, the football team would do nicely.
Actually, Chryst is too smart and too much of a realist to try to motivate his players with trickery. He is simply lightening the mood and having some fun with a group of players that he believes has worked hard this season. Chryst likes his team, win or lose, and poking some playful fun at the opponent was his way of showing it.

Do we dare talk Heisman?
ESPN.com conducted a Heisman poll among its college football analysts and writers, and only one defensive player got a vote — Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald (fifth place). Quarterbacks Marcus Mariota of Oregon, Jameis Winston of Florida State and Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M finished 1-2-3.

November 1, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt’s visit to Atlanta, Georgia Tech is a chance to make amends

From the 18th floor of the Marriott Marquis in downtown Atlanta:

If you don’t like heights, keep the drapes drawn or don’t look down. But it is pretty cool. If you dare, copy and paste the following to see what I’m talking about: twitpic.com/djlyb9

Of course, the Pitt team isn’t interested in sightseeing. Saturday night’s game at Bobby Dodd Stadium against Georgia Tech is particularly important for the Panthers, who haven’t lost two in a row yet this year (after doing so a total of five times during the 2011 and 2012 seasons).

Pitt wasted a big opportunity to take a 5-2 record into Atlanta when the defense couldn’t find a way to solve Navy’s triple-option offense in the second half last week. I got the same feeling in that game as I did late in the Notre Dame triple-overtime affair last year — the other team would have scored on 10 more possessions if the game lasted long enough. Pitt just doesn’t have good fortune with mobile quarterbacks. Munchie Legaux of Cincinnati, Notre Dame’s Everett Golson and even Duke’s backup Brandon Connette all proved to be too fast and elusive for the Pitt defense.

Georgia Tech’s Vad Lee also runs well, which suggests to me that Pitt may be in trouble. If someone wanted to know what Pitt needs most to bolster its roster in the next two recruiting classes, I would say speed on defense. Outside linebacker Todd Thomas combines fleet feet and toughness, but he’s only 1/11th of the defense. Aaron Donald has, perhaps, the quickest first step among the nation’s defensive tackles, but he’s only another 1/11th.

Pitt has 15 sacks — eight by Donald. Pitt has forced 14 fumbles — and recovered three. Throw in six interceptions and that’s only nine turnovers in seven games. A total of 104 FBS teams have more fumble recoveries; 84 have more interceptions.

Maybe Pitt fans expected more with eight defensive starters returning from last year’s team.

But, as Paul Chryst likes to say, every week brings a new opportunity. No matter how bad the situation appears to be — and at 4-3, it’s really not terrible – there are five games remaining for Pitt to make amends. A couple of big plays on defense might lead to a 3-2 finish, which probably would mean victory against  North Carolina and Syracuse and either Georgia Tech, Notre Dame or Miami.

Would you sign for that right now, Pitt fans?

I’m not going to jump to conclusions and predict Pitt’s record over the final stretch of the season, but I do believe Georgia Tech will win Saturday night: Make it, 28-17.

One final personal note: Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium will be the 14th first-time venue for me since I started covering Pitt in 2011. It’s the oldest on-campus facility in college football and is celebrating its 100th birthday this year.

October 25, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt vs. Navy: A look back, a look ahead and a prediction

Bags packed, I’m off to Maryland on Friday morning for Pitt’s game against Navy on Saturday.
First thing, though, I need to pick up some Marriott points at the BWI airport and visit — at the gentle urging of co-worker Bob Cohn –McGarvey’s in Annapolis.  ”You gotta try the crab cake pretzels,” Cohn said.
It’s  said — or, Cohn said — that McGarvey’s was a favorite  hangout of Walter Cronkite, who used to dock his 48-foot yacht nearby.
First, though, let’s clean up some loose ends from the week.

– I got an email from Pitt grad Sam Zacharias, who did the color commentator along side Beano Cook, for the closed-circuit telecast of the famous 1963 Pitt-Navy game. Among Zacharias’ halftime guests were Pitt Chancellor Edward H. Litchfield and the nation’s 37-year-old attorney general Robert F. Kennedy.
“It was a heady experience for a 20-year-old student,” Zacharias wrote.
RFK, like his older brother, was a big Navy fan. Staubach said he remembers Robert playing touch football outside the team’s hotel before the Michigan game in 1963.

–   As we were concluding our conversation Wednesday, former Navy quarterback and college and pro football Hall of Famer Roger Staubach poked a little fun at his two losses to the Steelers in Super Bowls X and XIII when he was with the Dallas Cowboys. “I sure am glad we beat Pitt in 1963,” he said. “We didn’t have much luck with that other Pittsburgh team.”

– What was interesting about the ’63 game was the level of success players from both teams enjoyed after football. Staubach was the only member of his team to play in the NFL, but seven of them became admirals in the U.S. Navy. After football, Staubach made a fortune in commercial real estate, and continues to work to this day at the age of 71 as Executive Chairman-Americas of the Jones, Lang, LaSalle global commercial real estate company in Dallas.
Pitt quarterback Fred Mazurek, who has a law degree from Michigan State and a graduate law degree from Wayne (Mich.) State, retired four years ago as the chief tax officer of the multi-national, biomedical firm Beckman Coulter Inc., in Fullerton, Calif.
Mazurek, who married Pitt coach John Michelosen’s daughter Suzanne, was an All-American centerfielder at Pitt and attracted interest from the Philadelphia Phillies, Pirates and Minnesota Twins, who drafted him in the 19th round. He also briefly played for the Washington Redskins before entering the real world.
Former Pitt baseball coach Bobby Lewis said of Mazurek: “He’d go four-for-five  and come back to the bench and  ask what he was doing wrong.”
Lineman Ernie Borghetti has been a successful dentist in Youngtown, Ohio, since 1971. His son E. J. is senior associate athletic director at the University of Pittsburgh.
Another member of that team was longtime NFL head coach Marty Schottenheimer.
“Not only did we have quality football players, but we had quality people on our team,” Mazurek said. “That ’63 team is greatly admired because of what they accomplished on the field and what we did after that.”

(OK, enough of the past. Back to the present.)

– Pitt defensive coordinator Matt House revealed this week that the Panthers coaches spent some time this off-season with Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, whose team plays Navy every year and runs a similar, ground-oriented offense.
House said Calhoun said: “Make no mistake about it. They are going to be there to whip you.”
Air Force (1-6) lost to Navy, 28-10, on Oct. 5.

– North Allegheny graduate and Pitt senior Ryan Schlieper will make his second consecutive start at left guard Saturday, replacing Cory King, who is dealing with a back injury.
Schlieper started the first eight games at right guard last season before missing the final five with a foot injury. Then, he became a backup this season when coaches moved former tackles King and Matt Rotheram to guard.
“It was like old times. It was good to be back out there on the field,” said Schlieper, who has made 18 career starts. “I really missed it a lot.”
He admitted that it was difficult accepting the fact that he lost his starting job.
“You get upset, you get hurt,” he said. “You come back (from injury) and your spot is not there. It’s hard not to get mad.”
But Schlieper has a incredibly mature attitude about the situation.
“I said to myself, `There is no reason for me to be bitter. I had my limelight. It’s time to pass it on to someone else.’ ”
He said he was able to wrap his head around becoming a backup again because the players on Pitt’s offensive line are close friends.
“If it was someone I didn’t like, that would probably make it a lot worse,” he said.
He said everyone  on the line shares in the others’ successes and failures.
“You don’t get judged (as) one person,” he said. “You are judged as five people. You’re a unit. It’s a living organism.”
Schlieper, 23, has graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history and is pursuing a second degree in administration of justice.

– Freshman wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who took a lot of snaps at Clairton High School, said the time is coming for him to run the Wildcat, but he promises to be patient.
“I think it’s coming,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be this year.”
I can’t say I’ve seen a copy of Chryst’s playbook, but it’s safe to assume the Wildcat holds no prominent place in it. He has called for nine handoffs to Boyd, which have gone for 106 yards and one touchdown.

– Oh, one more thing: Pitt 27, Navy 21.

 

 

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