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December 7, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt’s bowl situation is a matter of economics

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A few thoughts on Pitt’s bowl destination:
Yes, it’s true that Pitt (8-4) is better than Louisville, N.C. State and Duke — teams that were awarded ACC Tier One bowl berths while Pitt is going to the Tier Two Military Bowl to play Navy on a Monday afternoon in Annapolis, Md.
But Louisville is going to the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., and N.C. State to the Belk in Charlotte, N.C., strictly for geographic reasons. In other words, their fans will buy more tickets and spend more money in the host cities than Pitt fans would have done.
Duke to the Pinstripe Bowl in NYC? Pitt wanted that trip, but Duke fans travel better. That’s one of the sad realities of the bowl season. The bowls are the hosts, and they have the right to pick their guests.
Unfair? Depends on your perspective.
What’s more attractive? Playing 6-6 Indiana on the day (Saturday) after Christmas in Yankee Stadium? (Actually, other than opponent, the idea of Christmas in New York and a football game in a legendary baseball venue is kind of cool.)
Or playing a 9-2 (non-Power 5) Navy team with a Heisman Trophy candidate (Keenan Reynolds) at quarterback? I’ve been to Annapolis. There’s nothing quite like the scene when the Midshipmen march into the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in lockstep.
Both games are nationally televised, by the way.
Don’t be naïve enough to think that victories don’t matter. If Pitt had defeated Miami in the final regular-season game, the Panthers would have had two more victories than those three ACC rivals — and conference rules would have prevented them from leapfrogging Pitt.
One more note: None of the four ACC teams that are playing in Tier One Bowls are matched against ranked opponents. Navy is No. 21.
Here’s a solution for Pitt fans to consider: Go to the game. I bet you never thought of that.
If enough of you show up, the bowls will notice and you may not have this problem next year.

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December 5, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Miami coach Mark Richt’s fling with Pitt

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I never thought new Miami coach Mark Richt would reference Pitt at his introductory news conference Friday, but he did tell an interesting tale — albeit, one that’s 19 years old.
Richt said he turned down an opportunity to replace Johnny Majors as Pitt’s head coach in 1996 because he wanted to go to a place where he could spend the rest of his career.
That was a time when Pitt was coming off five consecutive losing seasons while playing in 71-year-old Pitt Stadium that was torn down three years later.
“When I was offered the job at the University of Pittsburgh five years prior to taking Georgia job, it wasn’t official that I was hired,” Richt said, “but at the end of the visit, the AD (Steve Pederson) said, ‘If you spend the night, I’ll introduce you to the fans at the basketball game as our new head coach.’ ”
Richt, who at the time was offensive coordinator at Florida State, assumed that was a job offer, so he consulted with his wife Katharyn.
“I talked to Katharyn and said, ‘Do you want to live in Pittsburgh for the rest of your life?’ I have nothing against Pittsburgh. I love Pittsburgh. I love the Iron City … but I said, ‘Is this where you want to live, for good?’
“She said, ‘Why do you ask?’
“I said, ‘Because I don’t want to take a job knowing I’m looking for another job.’ ”
Richt, 55, said it was important for him not to take a job that was a steppingstone to something else. (Refreshing, right?)
“I can see assistant coaches moving,” he said, “but when you’re the head coach, everything rises and falls on you and so many people are counting on you.
“What I didn’t want to do was go to Pittsburgh or anywhere else and then, three years down the road, say, ‘I got a better job. I got a better opportunity. I’ll see you all later. Thanks for helping me get to where I want to be.’
“If we were going to become head coach, I want it to be at a place where I feel like I could finish my career. That’s how we felt about Georgia at the time, and that’s exactly how we feel about the University of Miami.”
Richt turned down Pitt and stayed at Florida State until he was hired at Georgia in 2001. He stayed there until he was fired last week, compiling a 145-51 record with two SEC championships in 15 seasons.
Pitt hired Walt Harris, the one and only coach to lead the Panthers to a major bowl in the past three decades.

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December 5, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt’s Conner set for the fight of his life

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When we got the word from James Conner himself, maybe some people should have felt a little foolish.
Pitt called an early-afternoon news conference Friday, and the release from the good people in Sports Information said it would involve Conner, Pitt’s star running back who is sitting out this season with a knee injury.
Some thought it was called so Conner could announce he was going to the NFL. Those who believed that don’t know Conner very well. No way would Conner deflect attention from his buddies by shining light on himself. There isn’t a better teammate in that locker room.
No, Conner announced that he is returning to Pitt, but he will be in the fight of — and for — his life for most of 2016. It was only last Thursday — Thanksgiving morning –that Conner and his family met with Dr. Stanley Marks, chairman of the UPMC Cancer Center, who delivered the news:
Conner has Hodgkins lymphoma.
See, a little more important than the makeup of the NFL Draft.
Conner vowed to fight the disease.
“When it’s all said and done, we are going to have quite a story to tell. Can’t wait to tell it,” he said, promising to someday run out of the tunnel at Heinz Field with his Pitt teammates.
Marks, one of the world’s leading authorities on cancer and its treatment, is confident Conner can win this battle. Chemotherapy will be tough and long — at least six-months long — but Hodgkins is highly curable, with chemotherapy having a 85-95 percent success rate, according to Marks.
Conner is in good hands — Marks has been helping and counseling cancer and leukemia patients for decades. Believe me, I know.
The best hands, though, belong to Conner, who will do whatever it takes to resurrect his football career. Even if he must miss the better part of two seasons.
By the way, nice touch from coaches Dabo Swinney and Larry Fedora of Clemson and North Carolina, who offered these get-well wishes to Conner the day before their teams are scheduled to meet in Charlotte, N.C., in the ACC Championship game.
For more on Conner’s story, check out “The Kevin Gorman Show” on Triblive Radio. Thanks to Kevin for inviting me to participate.

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December 3, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Post-season honors may signal bright future at Pitt

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The victories against Duke and Louisville were nice, but the best two days of the past month for the Pitt football program were Monday and Tuesday when the future came into a sudden and bright focus.
Even if it doesn’t include James Conner and Tyler Boyd.
Let’s be clear, though. Conner and Boyd are two of the best players to wear a Pitt uniform — ever — and they would make the Panthers as strong as any team in the ACC next season. A tie for second place wasn’t bad for a first-year coach, but with Conner and Boyd, fans rightfully would expect a division championship, at least.
But the program is no longer top heavy with one or two stars; good players are developing throughout the roster.
Eight Pitt players were recognized by the ACC, which probably goes overboard naming first-, second-, third- and honorable mention teams. Still, those players caught the eyes of several observers and analysts in the media during the season, and the best part of the story for Pitt is that at least five of them are returning.
Let’s deal with the first-team selections first.
Boyd, a junior, and senior defensive end Ejuan Price could return in 2016 — if that’s what they want.
Boyd, however, could declare for the NFL Draft and become at least a second-round pick in the spring. That reality will be difficult for him to ignore.
Could Boyd improve his standing if he comes back to Pitt for his senior year? Probably. He won’t have a new quarterback to connect with or a new offense to learn next year, and he could compile even greater pass-catching numbers than his 85/873/6 (receptions/yards/touchdowns) of 2015.
But you can’t do dramatically better than the second round, unless you get into the top 10 of the first round, so Boyd may opt to leave.
Price is another story. Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi wants him to return and said he would personally file papers with the NCAA to get Price a sixth year of eligibility after injuries wiped out more than half of his college career.
But Price also will be eligible for the 2016 draft. I think he could help his 2017 draft position if he returns to school, but that’s something for Price and his family to decide.
Five of the remaining six Pitt ACC all-stars (senior defensive tackle Darryl Render) is the exception) will return next season.
Second-teamers Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson, both juniors, quietly had good seasons while anchoring the left side of Pitt’s offensive line. Running back Qadree Ollison, a redshirt freshman, was named ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year and also took his place on the second team.
On defense, strong safety Jordan Whitehead was overall and defensive Rookie of the Year and a third-team All-ACC safety. Sophomore Avonte Maddox checked in as an honorable mention cornerback.
That’s a good foundation from which to build the 2016 Pitt team. Several other key players are back next year, including quarterback Nathan Peterman, running back Darrin Hall, starting offensive linemen Alex Officer and Brian O’Neill, promising backup O-lineman Alex Bookser, several defensive backs (other than Whitehead) and linebackers Matt Galambos, Mike Caprara and Bam Bradley.
But that’s a story for the spring. This season still has a game to go, and Pitt’s bowl destination will be announced Sunday. Pitt has a second chance to get to nine victories for the first time since 2009 (when it won 10).
I’m rooting for Nashville and the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30 (vs. Tennessee?), but New York City, Yankee Stadium and the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 26 (vs. Indiana?) seem more likely. I hear some Pitt band members have been told to prepare to spend Christmas on Broadway.
For a complete wrap-up of the Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia regular seasons, give a click and a listen to the College Football Locker Room show. It aired on TribLive Radio on Wednesday, but you can get it here, too. It features the Trib’s three college beat writers (myself, Bob Cohn and Bill West).
I hope it comes across, but it’s my most enjoyable hour of the work week.

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November 26, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Happy Thanksgiving, and here’s one last bread crumb for the season: A Miami/Pitt prediction

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It’s Thanksgiving Day, and the Pitt players and coaches — at some point during the day — will check into a hotel for their weekly day-before-the-game meetings, dinner (turkey and stuffing, I hope) and lights-out well before midnight.
It’s one of the prices college and pro athletes pay. A holiday is just another day.
Kickoff for the final regular-season game is noon Friday, with ESPN2 doing the TV honors and former Pitt quarterback John Congemi providing the analysis.
I thought Louisville would be Pitt’s toughest opponent other than Iowa, North Carolina and Notre Dame, but Pitt dominated a good portion of that game.
Miami, with quarterback Brad Kaaya throwing the football from one sideline to the other (often down the field), might be better than Louisville. Perhaps the game will be decided on how well Pitt cornerbacks Lafayette Pitts and Avonte Maddox play.
Look for another fierce Pitt pass rush, but a close game — 38-35, Pitt. Keep your foot warm and dry, Chris Blewitt.

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November 20, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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One year’s time makes a big difference for Pitt

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A year ago, Pitt was 4-6, a loser of six of eight games and (even though no one knew at the time) less than a month from another coach search — its third in four years.
To the players’ credit, Pitt beat Syracuse and Miami to become bowl eligible, but the Orange and ‘Canes hardly seemed interested. Paul Chryst certainly wasn’t interested in finishing what he started when he was lured by the chance to coach his alma mater, Wisconsin.
With two games left in this season, Pitt is 7-3, with an athletic director who actually listens to his head coach and a head coach whose commitment to the university is the strongest of anyone in his position since the final days of Dave Wannstedt.
The other difference, however, is Saturday’s opponent, Louisville, won’t be subdued easily, even though it might only be the fourth-best team on Pitt’s schedule.
The Cardinals are athletic on defense, and their offense is functionally well, with Kyle Bolin at quarterback and Brandon Radcliff at running back. Slow down those two to a significant extent and Pitt will win.
Pitt has a lot at stake, most notably a chance to win nine games by beating Louisville on Saturday and Miami next Friday. Pitt hasn’t taken nine victories into its bowl game since 2009.
Even though it’s a longshot, Pitt still has a chance to win the ACC Coastal Division, but North Carolina must lose two while Pitt is winning two. The Tar Heels are on the road for both games, starting with Virginia Tech on Saturday in Hokies coach Frank Beamer’s last home game before retirement.
I expect a close game at Heinz Field, but Louisville will extend its winning streak to five in a row (seven of eight), 27-23.
Feel free to disagree.
I don’t think a loss to Louisville will affect Pitt’s bowl berth greatly, unless the Panthers also lose next week to Miami. If so, perhaps it’s hello (again), Birmingham. Yes, the Birmingham Bowl — no longer sponsored by BBVA –is on the long list of bowls with ties to the ACC.
As it stands now, Clemson will play in the College Football Playoff semifinal, if it wins the ACC Championship game (maybe even if it doesn’t).
Florida State or North Carolina would go to the Russell Athletic. That leaves the Sun, Belk, Pinstripe, Music City and Taxslayer to juggle FSU or UNC, Pitt, Louisville, N.C. State, Miami, Duke and Virginia Tech (assuming the five-victory Hokies reach bowl eligibility).
It will be interesting to see which bowls send representatives to Heinz Field on Saturday.

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November 14, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Saturday in Durham represents defining moment for Pitt

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Game day in Durham, N.C., and the sun is shining on refurbished Wallace Wade Stadium.
Before boarding a flight Friday, I spent 10 minutes with Stan Savran on WBGG/ESPN Radio.
Stan, an all-time great Pittsburgh media member and one of the most astute observers of this area’s sports scene for about four decades, made a good point during our chat: Pitt’s game against Duke is a defining moment in coach Pat Narduzzi’s first season.
Win, and Pitt (6-3, 4-1) has a chance to turn this season into something special by coming home and playing two mediocre (overall record-wise) teams Louisville and Miami. How does 8-4 sound, Pitt fans, after four consecutive 6-6s?
Lose, and Pitt extends its losing streak to three and is confronted with trying to save the season from falling into the miserable ennui that infested the past four seasons.
By the way, I looked up the word ennui (heard it once in a Frank Sinatra song): “A feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.”
Does that describe the attitude of Pitt fans — and some players — during bowl season 2011-2014?
I think so.
Prediction: Pitt 31, Duke 28.

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November 13, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Final thoughts before Pitt leaves for Durham and a date with Duke

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Coach Pat Narduzzi touched on several topics Thursday in his final press briefing before the Duke game.
The most interesting? I guess it’s the decision to tone down the fourth quarter party.
It started after the opener when Narduzzi didn’t like his team’s passivity entering the fourth quarter of the Youngstown State game. Pitt won, but YSU scored two touchdowns in the final quarter.
So, players decided to fire themselves up at the end of the third quarter by jumping up and down like mad men, squirting water bottles at each other and encircling one or two guys doing rapid-fire pushups. All of this was happening while coaches waited to discuss fourth-quarter strategy.
It worked for a while, but Iowa, Virginia and Georgia Tech scored one touchdown each in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame hit the Panthers with two.
Narduzzi said it’s time to cool it.
“I was shaking my head last week,” he said. “It’s good they are enthusiastic. If you ask them to do something, they will do it.
“But you can’t have a frat party. Maybe a dinner party. We are going to change it up a little bit.”
To that, I say: “Good call, coach.”

Narduzzi scoffed at the Duke injury report that lists quarterback Thomas Sirk as questionable with an upper body injury.
“They say he’s questionable,” Narduzzi said. “He’s a tough kid. He runs like Larry Csonka. The guy’s a beast. We expect him to play.”
Sirk, 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, is Duke’s leading rusher with 555 yards and five touchdowns. He’s hard to bring down; opponents have only six sacks in nine games.
Consider Sirk’s passing yardage (1,979), and Duke would be in trouble without him.

Pitt’s running game could use a boost after Qadree Ollison has totaled only 86 yards in the past two games after going back-to-back with 83 and 98 yards against Georgia Tech and Syracuse.
Narduzzi said “don’t count out” Darrin Hall, who might have hit the freshman wall earlier this season. Hall had games of 52, 38 and 38 yards by midseason, but he has had only three carries in the past three games.
“He’s been better this week (in practice),” Narduzzi said. “You never know. Maybe he’s got a new girlfriend.”

Narduzzi has argued with officials on several occasions this season, but in the solitude of a conference room (between games, with reporters around him), he was of no mind to criticize them.
“There is no bigger problem in the ACC than there is the Big Ten, Big 12 or SEC. It’s all the same,” he said. “It’s not an easy job. They work their tails off to get it done.
“They’ll get some things wrong. They’ll get some things right. It’s part of the game. It’s human error and it’s going to happen.”
I’ll have more on Narduzzi and the officials in Saturday’s game-day package in the Trib and on Triblive.com.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe seemed enthused Wednesday when he was asked about running back Jela Duncan, who has played in only six games, but is averaging 7.4 yards per carry.
Duncan, 5-foot-10, 210 pounds, was Duke’s leading rusher in 2012 and 2013 before he was suspended for the ’13 bowl game and the ’14 season due to an academic issue. He had surgery on both shoulders last year, and a pectoral injury kept him out of the first three games this year.
“He’s just now getting into football condition and shape,” Cutcliffe said. “I was very proud of him and his effort and intensity. He will have an impact for us down the stretch, no question.”
Not a lot of good came out of Duke’s 66-31 loss to North Carolina last week, but Duncan ran for 115 yards and Shaqiulle Powell added 98 – both on just 13 carries each.

Pitt fans should be concerned that defensive tackles Tyrique Jarrett and Mark Scarpinato are listed as doubtful with lower and upper body injuries, respectively. That hurts the starting lineup and the depth at the position.
Still, I get the feeling Pitt’s defense will recover against Duke. The teams have each scored a total of 106 points against each other in the past two games, but I think Narduzzi will tackle someone himself if Duke gets close to 50 points this time. Plus, Sirk’s injury — even if he plays — can’t be good for the Blue Devils’ chances.
I also look for a big game from Nathan Peterman and Tyler Boyd after the Irish shut down the Pitt passing game for the most part last week.
Watch, but don’t bet: Pitt 31, Duke 28.

Boyd, by the way, got his per-catch average up to 10.0 with his 51-yard touchdown reception late in the Notre Dame game. It also gave him Pitt’s all-time record in receiving yards (3,097) as he passed Antonio Bryant. He had previously set the reception record. He now has 229 catches in less than three seasons, 27 more than Devin Street had in four years.

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November 6, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Trib reader shares tale from Tony Dorsett’s big day

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Just a quick note to thank those readers who commented on my story Thursday about Tony Dorsett’s record-breaking 303-yard game against Notre Dame on Nov. 15, 1975, at Pitt Stadium. It’s been a while since I received so much feedback from one of my Pitt stories.
All were appreciated, but I thought I’d share West Deer reader Vince Mercuri’s recollections of that day 40 years ago.
Wrote Vince:
“I was there on the sideline as a 19-year-old fan. I had a high school friend who was on the team and that is how I was on the sideline.
“After the game in the locker room, among the wild celebration, I approached TD (Dorsett), gave him a hand slap and asked him for something for me to remember the game.
“He threw me his left elbow (pad). Before walking away, I asked him to sign it, which he did. He then went on to an interview with a reporter, I think ABC.
“I have had the elbow pad appraised by sports collectors, been offered between $500 and $1,000. Not interested, too valuable of a memory.
“My three adult kids all joke that they will be fighting over it when I pass.
“It will always rank as the best game I ever saw. Hard to believe it has been 40 years.”
Vince said he will attend Saturday’s game against Notre Dame as part of his 59th birthday celebration.
Vince, enjoy. Thanks for reading and writing.

I don’t know why, but I looked up Pitt’s record against Notre Dame after the Panthers won the national championship in 1976. It’s 8-18.
Overall, Pitt is 21-47-1 against the Irish, breaking a three-game Notre Dame winning streak in 2013 when safety Ray Vinopal intercepted two passes. After that game, an invited high school prospect made the unfortunate decision of taking a phone into the winning locker room and making a video of then-coach Paul Chryst in a victory dance. True story. Nothing Chryst did in his three years at Pitt surprised me more than that.
More Pitt/Irish trivia:
— There was a scoreless tie in 1911.
— Pitt’s first four victories in the series — 1932-34 and 1936 — were shutouts.
— Notre Dame has two long winning streaks in the series (eight games, 1943-1951) and (11 games, 1964-1974).
— The longest continuous streak of games between the teams was 23 (1956-1978).

Pitt has invited several top high school prospects to the game, hoping to capitalize on what could be an electric atmosphere and packed house at Heinz Field.
Coach Pat Narduzzi said he hopes the recruits considering Pitt will take advantage of the entire campus experience, not just the game.
“I hope it’s not all about the game,” he said. “There are only six or seven of them a year. There are 300-plus other days (when) they have to be happy at Pitt. It’s not all about the game-day atmosphere. It’s more about the other days. Everybody has a great game-day atmosphere.
“We will have a lot of good recruits here, but they are here every week.”
Pitt has 11 verbal commitments from the Class of 2016, including nine who are rated three- and four-stars by Rivals.com.

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November 5, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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To Pitt’s Caprara, all this Notre Dame talk `gets old’

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Pitt linebacker Mike Caprara doesn’t hate Notre Dame. He doesn’t even dislike the Irish. His uncle Joe Caprara kicked for Notre Dame in the 1950s, and Mike is proud to call himself Joe’s nephew.
But the way he feels is a football player’s thing. Perhaps you wouldn’t understand.
He is just tired of hearing about Notre Dame. As in: Hey, Pitt plays football, too.
“I wouldn’t say there is much dislike, but it does get old,” Caprara said after practice Wednesday. “Having the high reputation, I give them credit. That’s really something that’s unique.
“Being an opponent, it just gets old. I want to get out there (on the field Saturday) and just silence everything.”
The past few days have been filled with talk of Pitt/Notre Dame, both within and without Pitt’s practice facility. Caprara has bought into it, too.
“Growing up in Pittsburgh, this the game you want to be playing in. This is the game you live for,” he said.
You didn’t hear anything like that coming from Pitt players before, say, the Georgia Tech game.
Playing Notre Dame is special. The media knows that. The ticket-buying public knows that. The players know that. Even Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said this is a game players from both teams mark on their calendars.
If the crowd Saturday isn’t the largest of the season for a college game at Heinz Field, I’ll be shocked.
That’s why I was surprised when Pitt tight end J.P. Holtz said Tuesday’s practice was less than satisfactory. This is Notre Dame week, after all. What gives?
But Caprara said the atmosphere went from flat to charged Wednesday.
“A lot of guys got together and looked at the tape (of Tuesday’s practice),” he said. “It was a night and day difference. It was a great practice (Wednesday). We got a lot done.”
Actually, the game has greater meaning for Notre Dame than it does for Pitt. The Irish (7-1) are No. 5 in the first College Football Playoff rankings; in other words, right on the cusp of the Final Four. So much to gain, so much to lose.
For Pitt, it’s a non-conference game. Win it, and it would be good for confidence and credibility — all those things you can’t touch. Lose it and beat Duke, Louisville and Miami the next three weeks, and there’s a good chance Pitt will play for the ACC championship.

I saw the first 30 minutes of practice Tuesday and Wednesday, and it looked pretty normal to me. I only saw calisthenics and a few routine drills. No scrimmage plays.
But joining his teammates for calisthenics for the first time since his injury (again, I only see 30 minutes a day, twice a week) was James Conner.
I’m not reading too much into it because Conner, who has missed all but the first quarter of the first game with a knee injury, was out there without his helmet. He went inside (presumably for treatment) when the real hitting started.
But coach Pat Narduzzi said on his radio show Wednesday that he believes Conner might be well enough to play in the final couple games. He didn’t define the word couple, however, and after Saturday there are only four games remaining in the season — five if Pitt finds a way to win the Coastal Division of the ACC.
Narduzzi also said the decision will be up to Conner and his family. It’s been almost two months since his surgery.
Two months from now, he’ll have to make another decision — whether or not to declare for the NFL Draft.

Final note: Check out today’s edition of the College Football Locker Room on Trib Live Radio with Trib sports writers Bob Cohn, Bill West, John Harris and myself.
Lots of talk about the future of West Virginia football, and we have weekend predictions, too.

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