PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — Labor Day will mark the hopeful rebirth of Pitt football, and second-year head coach Paul Chryst knows a laborious road lies ahead.
“I don’t think all season openers are created equal. There are so many different factors. Who are you as a team? Who is your opponent?” he rhetorically asked during his press conference on the South Side Monday. “There are some key factors that are relevant in all openers because it is the first time you’re playing: taking care of the football, takeaways, penalties, and the kicking game. Those things are common storylines in all games. But this is certainly a unique one.”
No. 11 Florida State, the defending ACC champion, will come to a crowded Heinz Field for an 8:00 P.M. kickoff on 93.7 The Fan next Monday to help welcome the Panthers to their new conference. It’s the highest-ranked opponent Pitt has hosted in a season opener in over 30 years–and the venue for that game hasn’t existed since Larry Fitzgerald, who will be on hand for his jersey retirement ceremony, was in prep school.
Despite the swagger of the visitors, both teams enter the contest unproven on some level. Pitt’s redshirt senior quarterback, Tom Savage, hasn’t played in three years. His counterpart, Jameis Winston, one of the top-ranked 2012 prospects nationally at his position, hasn’t played at all.
FSU, however, is fully convinced it can win with Winston, and Chryst believes the best way to get the redshirt freshman off his game would be for his defensive front, which showed promise in his first year on the job, to make him win the game himself.
“We want to make their quarterback uncomfortable. I’m sure it’s no different with Florida State wanting to make Tom uncomfortable. The key to all football is to stop the run,” Chryst explained. “If you can do a good job of stopping the run, then it’s easier to get pressure on the quarterback.”
The Panthers will have to hone in on juniors Devonta Freeman and James Wilder, who combined for 19 touchdowns and nearly 1,300 yards in 2012 while spelling injured senior Chris Thompson. Led by defensive tackle Aaron Donald, they ranked ahead of all but three ACC teams last year in rushing defense, and next week they’ll square off against an offensive line with as many as four potential NFL-ers.
For the senior Donald, a Third Team Phil Steele Preseason All-American, and for talented underclassmen like linebackers Bam Bradley and Anthony Gonzalez, and former Ohio State fullback-turned-lineman David Durham, there’s seldom a better opportunity to be heroes.
“I think that we’ve found some depth. We certainly have a lot of players on defense that we feel good about,” Chryst said. “In spring ball, the summer, and fall camp, some of those good players have gotten better. We’ve had the emergence of some other guys that we have to find roles for. We’d like to play a number of different guys.”
But regardless of Monday’s outcome, the true heroes of this prime-time game will be athletic director Steve Pederson and former Florida State AD Randy Spetman.
In February, Pederson had a choice, and, for all the ill-fated decisions made during the Big East years, this time, he made the right one. Rather than butter up the boys with a cupcake out-of-conference opponent, which, recently, has led them nowhere, let’s find out immediately where they stand.
Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer, one of Chryst’s new neighbors in the ACC’s Coastal Division, has played in plenty of big games, and not just at the end of the season. This Saturday at 5:30 they’ll recreate their 2009 lid-lifter when they meet national champion Alabama in the Georgia Dome, and in 2010 they opened with No. 3 Boise State.
For those who think they’re the least bit worried about failure, even of the abject variety, in the days ahead, think again. Pitt fans shouldn’t be, either.
That 2010 season began for Tech with a neutral-site loss to the Broncos in overtime, followed by a home loss to 35-point underdog James Madison (Youngstown State, anyone?), and ended with an ACC Championship victory over none other than Jimbo Fisher’s Seminoles.
If you want a fast car, go get a fast car. If Pederson wishes to turn a Pinto into a Porsche eventually, he has to give this fan base a product worth watching, and until Pitt proves it has the horsepower, it doesn’t get much better than the fledgling Panthers hosting the Orange Bowl champions with a national television audience all to themselves.
“I do believe games like this are why guys want to come to Pittsburgh. When guys think of college football, they think of games like these. All of that is great, and we’re appreciative of the people who made this happen,” Chryst said. “Joining the ACC in this fashion is pretty impressive.”
The important thing isn’t the event alone. It’s how the event prepares Pitt for the rest of its journey in 2013.
Pitt enters the year trying to avoid a third consecutive losing season, at least two of which will have been capped by defeats in bowl games, for the first time since posting a mere .268 winning percentage over five seasons 1992-96.
But let’s not kid ourselves. The program is comfortably ahead of where it was a generation ago in terms of raw talent, its recruiting base, and, above all, its leadership.
Paul Chryst still has plenty of time to win over this jury before it reaches a verdict. He obviously had nothing to do with the tumult of 2011, and last year, after inheriting a team whose collective intelligence had been insulted–and eroded–by his predecessor, he made the best out of an island of misfit toys.
“The coach’s job is to help players play. I love the game of football because they’re the only ones between the lines. It’s their game,” he said. “Our job is to adjust to the strengths of our players and keep developing guys and forcing them out of their comfort zones so they can grow.”
Pitt already owns a victory over a top-15 team under his guidance. It was, in fact, Chryst’s first win with the program, a 35-17 upset of the No. 13 Hokies last Sept. 15.
There’s no guarantee this ACC matchup on the North Shore will turn out remotely similar. But even if the Panthers are emphatically nixed by the ‘Noles, growth will take place.
Just ask Frank Beamer.
(Contact me at email@example.com and/or follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)