Pittsburgh Football Trending Upward Despite Mediocre 2013 Season

Matt Popchock@@mpopchockContributor IIJanuary 7, 2014

Little Caesars Pizza Bowl MVP James Conner led Pitt with 799 rushing yards and eight TDs as a true freshman in 2013. He also made a brief appearance at defensive end.
Little Caesars Pizza Bowl MVP James Conner led Pitt with 799 rushing yards and eight TDs as a true freshman in 2013. He also made a brief appearance at defensive end.Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

There will be no more meaningful college football played for well over seven months. Do you miss it yet? Understandably, many Pittsburgh fans might have been too busy cheering on the men's basketball team on its own maiden ACC voyage to care about what happened this past year, much less the finality of Monday night's instant classic in Pasadena.

Or maybe this ongoing polar vortex froze their tear ducts, thus preventing them from getting choked up about not being able to utter the phrase "Tommy Football" anymore.

Seriously, though, as one metal band reminded us in the 1980s, you don't know what you got til it's gone.

Sure, the Panthers mostly have plodded along as roadies, not rock stars, on the grand gridiron stage since then. And no matter what Cinderella says, a 7-6 finish in 2013 is hardly reason to measure oneself for glass slippers.

Striking down Bowling Green at a half-empty Ford Field the night after Christmas wasn't the endgame envisioned by the program when Paul Chryst inherited it over two years ago. 

However, lost in the ennui of another trip to another forlorn industrial city for another token bowl game were reasons to immediately look forward to the forthcoming fall.

When the Falcons first landed in Detroit, they upset No. 14 Northern Illinois, which was led by dual-threat quarterback and Heisman long shot Jordan Lynch, to win the MAC and earn favorite status entering the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. It was a game Pitt, in order to earn respect after going 3-5 within the conference in its inaugural ACC campaign, needed to win but wasn't necessarily expected to.

Chryst had already collected a signature victory. Revisionist history says it came not in a smackdown of eventual conference rival Virginia Tech in his first year on the job, but on Nov. 9, when he got a tiny bit of revenge against No. 24 Notre Dame before a nationwide TV audience and a Heinz Field crowd much more voluminous than usual.

In case that defeat of the Golden Domers lost any luster, winning his first bowl game as a head coach further proved the program is not as allergic to success as perceived.

If anything, his players, some of whom had played under as many different people as toppings offered by Little Caesars, went into the bowl game nice and loose, knowing the coaching carousel was spinning on the opposite sideline for a change. They played with enough reckless abandon that BGSU interim boss Adam Scheier called them "the most physical team we faced all season" to Noah Trister of the Associated Press.

You're going to remember when that defense looked overwhelmed by ACC champion Florida State, and later, by dark horse Duke. Or when the Panthers sleepwalked through the second quarter against North Carolina. Or when they spotted Miami a 21-point halftime lead. Or when they simply ran out of steam in the final minutes at Navy.

Having said that, let us not forget how that same defense not only controlled the line of scrimmage against Bowling Green, but also controlled the damage done by Matt Johnson, sacking the sophomore seven times.

Let us also not forget that the face of the 2013 Panthers was, in fact, a defensive player: senior tackle and consensus All-American Aaron Donald.

No other Pitt defensive lineman in recent memory had drawn comparisons to the legendary Hugh Green, and, until Donald's final collegiate season, none had been as celebrated as Green.

Despite facing designed double- and triple-teams all season, the Penn Hills product led the nation with 28.5 tackles for loss, which comprised nearly half of his 59.0 total tackles. He won the Lombardi and Bednarik Awards, along with the Nagurski and Outland Trophies, becoming the first Pitt player ever to take home four postseason awards in a single year.

The fact that Donald, unlike Green, was not invited to New York City only underscores how aloof Heisman voters have become.

This program hasn't boasted such an outstanding player on a middling team since Larry Fitzgerald. Dragging down Johnson deep in the pocket to effectively end the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl was a nice way for Donald, the erstwhile FBS leader in career sacks by active players, to walk off into the sunset, as B/R Featured Columnist Alex Koza reported.

Once again, you don't know what you got til it's gone.

Speaking of Fitzgerald, the Panthers might have replicated him when they integrated pure freshman Tyler Boyd into their offense.

The newly anointed Freshman All-American looks to be every bit the blue-chipper after amassing 1,776 all-purpose yards and smashing Fitzgerald's team freshman records for catches and receiving yards. Even in his debut, that lopsided ACC lid-lifter against Florida State, the former Clairton (Pa.) phenom never appeared out of his league.

As satisfying as it must have been for Donald to end his college career on a high note, it was more important for Pitt to show the rest of the country there's food in the fridge entering 2014. While Boyd ate big chunks of yardage—a school bowl-game record 173 on eight grabsand sliced through Bowling Green's special teams like a pizza cutter on a 54-yard punt return touchdown, fellow newcomer James Conner enjoyed his own progressive dinner party.

Pitt's previously inconsistent offense kept pace with the Falcons, one of the nation's five least scored-upon teams in 2013, because consistency was found on the ground. Conner, who scored the Panthers' first TD, stiff-armed his way to 229 yardsanother school bowl-game recordon 26 carries.

He helped his team march into position for another freshman, Chris Blewitt, to rise above his name and win the game with a 39-yard field goal, and Conner ended his freshman campaign with 799 yards and eight touchdowns. Plus, in the wake of injuries and personal absences, his coaches were inspired to line him up at defensive end for the first time since he made all-state at Erie McDowell.

Chryst has not explicitly said whether or not we've seen the last of Conner as an ironman; nevertheless, the Panthers are prepared to move on without Donald up front.

Sophomore Darryl Render started to figure things out toward the end of the season (25.0 tackles, three pass breakups). Junior Bryan Murphy showed periodic promise in his second year as a starter (6.5 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks). Freshman Shakir Soto was also noticeable (20.0 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss), while Philadelphia area star Justin Moody and Pittsburgh City League standout Tyrique Jarrett paid their dues and may become impact players in the future.

On the other side of the line, redshirt freshman Adam Bisnowaty has nowhere to go but up after a back injury offset his early-season success at left tackle. The same can be said for another very highly touted local prospect, Dorian Johnson, who gained his first bit of experience at multiple spots in 2013.

That unit, which faced Bowling Green's defense without three regulars, paved the way for an offense that saw all of its points that night scored by freshmen, including late heroics by probable 2014 starting quarterback Chad Voytik.

For the first time since his stellar performance in the Blue-Gold Game, we caught a good glimpse of Voytik's abilities when the Cleveland, Tenn. native hurled a 62-yard sideline bomb to Boyd that set up his own score, a naked bootleg from five yards away for his first college touchdown. Imagine what those two could do together next season, considering such plays were par for the course for Voytik in high school.

I spent the last two months of the past year trying to get a read on these Panthers. I surmised they were still an average football team that hadn't learned how to take advantage of above-average opportunities, with that win over the Fighting Irish being the anomaly. Hopefully for their sake what happened in the Motor City was a sign post toward maturity.

"The program's definitely in good hands, especially with Coach Chryst being our head coach. The future's bright," Conner told Pitt LiveWire.

The gulf between the Panthers and the top teams in their new conference often seemed wide.

The linebackers, even with capable playmaker Todd Thomas roaming around, need better depth. In the secondary, potential leaders like Lafayette Pitts, who at times looked out of sorts in the more conservative schemes of novice defensive coordinator Matt House, need to find their form. The offense, which has only scratched the surface of how great its best players could be, needs to better value possessions and better protect whoever replaces Tom Savage.

If it's always darkest before the dawn, Pitt has not yet reached the dawn of a new era. Still, fans should be able to see rays of sunshine along the horizon.

In its first season of ACC play, Pitt played both conference finalists—to say nothing of the new national champion—closer and tougher than a number of its new neighbors.

It proved it still knows how to matriculate players to the NFL—Donald and all-time receptions leader Devin Street—who could have sustainable careers. Both men, along with Boyd, have brought positive national attention to a program mired in mediocrity.

(Oh, that reminds me...didn't that guy who won the rushing title used to loaf around here?)

There were three quality wins—over Duke, Notre Dame and Bowling Green—and, in fairness, at least one loss—to the 'Noles—that should be kept in perspective.

There were also three games in which the Panthers overcame second-half deficits, which is three more times than they did that from 2010 through 2012.

Things could certainly be better for Pitt. But they could also be worse, and those like me who grew up during the second Johnny Majors era will remind you that, once upon a time, they were.

"It's a great feeling just to know that the program is going back on top with Coach Chryst," Donald told Sam Werner of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "That's a guarantee."

Coming from a reputable spokesman for a senior class previously hurt by deception and administrative incompetence, that praise should mean a lot.

In all, 12 pure freshmen saw action for Pitt in 2013. Eight different stats were led by freshmen, namely Conner and Boyd.

The former one-upped the greatest running back in program history in his first bowl game. The latter may be trying to one-up Fitzgerald on Sundays before you know it.

Like I said, you don't know what you got til it's gone...and that includes this ever-intriguing offseason, in which they'll have those seven months to evolve.

Bring on the Blue Hens.

Statistics courtesy of NCAA.com and PittsburghPanthers.com.


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