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Pitt

Panther Hollow: First Impressions Often Misleading, But…

By Matt Popchock
Pitt touchdown celebration

Pitt tight end Hubie Graham celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown in the second half against the Cincinnati Bearcats on Nov. 5, 2011 at Heinz Field. (Photo credit: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

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PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — Not that winning season openers ever did anything for his predecessors in the long run, but for new Pitt head coach Paul Chryst, this looked bad.

All scholastic sports, by nature, are cyclical. However, it’s beyond sobering to think, in just three years, that program has gone from the precipice of a BCS berth to getting its doors blown off by a I-AA squad in its own backyard. It represents abject failure, the blame for which reaches far and wide…and high.

Still, I hesitate to call Saturday’s 31-17 loss to visiting Youngstown State at Heinz Field an omen, because history is full of reputable major college teams that ultimately conquered the unpredictability of this sport. We remember what Appalachian State did to Michigan in 2007, but lest we forget, the Wolverines still went to the Capital One Bowl, upsetting top-ten Florida. Virginia Tech lost to James Madison in 2010 before running the table for an ACC title and Orange Bowl appearance.

I hesitate to point my first finger at Paul Chryst, even though he was completely out-coached by Eric Wolford. Without listening to a single second of post-game reaction, I knew he would be among the chief scapegoats for that debacle, and he was. There’s only one problem: Paul Chryst doesn’t block or tackle. Football, at its roots, is about attrition, and Pitt did neither of those things well enough to win last Saturday, as senior center and co-captain Ryan Turnley acknowledged earlier this week.

I also hesitate to label Pitt’s first game of 2012 a fluke, unless it proves otherwise at Nippert Stadium Thursday night.

As radio analyst Pat Bostick once contended, some of the most significant progress you’ll see from a successful team takes place from game one to game two, which is something I can’t recall happening since the year Cincinnati stole that aforementioned BCS berth from under the Panthers’ collective nose.

Pitt began the 2009 campaign by blasting, coincidentally, Youngstown State, then handling its business in equally convincing fashion at Buffalo. Last year Todd Graham began by manufacturing a win over the Bulls, then found tenuous success against second-tier Maine. Dave Wannstedt’s final season on the sidelines started with a disappointing loss at Utah and continued with a golf-clap victory against New Hampshire. In both instances, I was already reading writing on the wall that implied mediocrity. By the end of each season I wasn’t wrong.

Fortunately, in the Big East, in case you hadn’t noticed, mediocrity is contagious. For Chryst to solidify his credibility, he needs simply–well, “simply”–to do what no Pitt coach has done within the Big East as it begins its final year in the conference.

In the immortal words of Tom Berenger, win the whole freakin’ thing.

Step one is a win over the Bearcats. This means Chryst and his players re-writing the same sorry screenplay, and taking a step forward in this second game. He expects to see that progress, but there is plenty of convincing to be done.

The key matchup, once again, is along the line, where the Panthers, defensively, were manhandled by the Penguins. Isaiah Pead, who ran for 118 yards on 22 carries at Heinz Field last fall, is off to the NFL, but Bishop McDevitt product and true sophomore Jameel Poteat (once recruited by Pitt) can be an impact player in the backfield as well. Having 300-pound nose tackle and camp phenom Ty Ezell, and to a lesser extent, backup lineman Shayne Hale, back from suspension should bolster Pitt’s defense.

That defense, which has recently ranked among the national leaders in sacks, barely laid a finger on Kurt Hess Saturday. This must change against junior Munchie Legaux, who doesn’t mind running, but remains unproven with his arm.

On the other side of the ball, despite not having the services of Ray Graham in their last meeting, Pitt, as a team, still out-gained UC, 179-152, on the ground, which was an impressive feat considering the Bearcats, in 2011, ranked sixth among all FBS (Division I) schools in rushing yardage allowed per game.

Aside from an early red-zone turnover, Graham looked serviceable on Saturday, running for a team-best 72 yards on 14 of Pitt’s 28 total rushing attempts. If Chryst decides he’s not himself, he can turn to Isaac Bennett, who totaled 44 on ten carries with one TD, and highly-touted freshman Rushel Shell, who also saw his suspension lifted.

At first glance, 17 points against Youngstown State looks uninspiring, but remember that Pitt ended at a ten-minute disadvantage in time of possession; in the meantime, the Panthers did not allow Tino Sunseri to be sacked, which was an issue last season, and an issue last November, when UC’s defense got to the now-senior quarterback late in the game.

This defensive line, ranked by Phil Steele as the second-best in the conference entering 2012, is manned by seniors Dan Giordano and Walter Stewart on the ends. Despite the impressive size of YSU, Cincinnati’s front four should provide a much tougher test.

Pitt needs to pass that test in order to walk out of Clifton Heights with a new lease on life. Win or lose, it’s about time for the Panthers to start showing signs of it.

(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)

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