5 Important Items on Pittsburgh Football's 2014 To-Do List
The 125th season of football at the University of Pittsburgh is on the horizon, as the Panthers opened training camp Monday at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex on Pittsburgh's South Side.
Third-year head coach Paul Chryst has been building his Panthers his way, but there's still plenty to be done after bowl appearances in his first two campaigns, and we're about to assess that workload.
We'll look at which games will be must-wins, which players need to have breakout seasons in order for the Panthers to roar and what steps Chryst can take off the field to bolster the program.
The following are five important things—plus another—Pitt must accomplish for 2014 to be a success.
Don't Chicken out in Front of Blue Hens
The excitement surrounding the Panthers last season wasn't as much about how they started as it was how they finished. Now they must build upon that exciting finish by getting off to a proper start—a bugaboo for previous Pitt squads.
In 2007 then-coach Dave Wannstedt was on the winning sideline for one of the greatest eyebrow-raisers in Pitt football history: a game known to fans simply as "13-9."
The following year, with plenty of eyes on them as a result of their Backyard Brawl shocker, Wannstedt's Panthers embarrassed themselves at home in their season opener against Bowling Green.
In 2010 Wannstedt fielded another team with high expectations coming off Pitt's first season of double-digit wins since Dan Marino lined up under center. They opened with a frustrating overtime loss at Utah on a Thursday night, a blow from which neither Wannstedt nor that team fully recovered.
In 2012 new head coach Paul Chryst began the task of cleaning up the mess Todd Graham effectively dumped on his lap by slipping against FCS foe Youngstown State.
Last year a Labor Day conference opener on the North Shore yielded another ugly result against Florida State (though, in fairness, the Panthers' 28-point margin of defeat was modest compared to what later FSU opponents suffered).
For Pitt, shedding its reputation of being long on promise and short on delivery and further energizing its fanbase starts with making a good first impression. That means coming through with a comfortable victory over Delaware, No. 23 in Athlon Sports' preseason FCS poll, in their season opener Aug. 30 at Heinz Field.
The Blue Hens, best known in Pittsburgh for graduating Baltimore Ravens quarterback and former Pitt reserve Joe Flacco, will bring another star QB with regional ties and something to prove. Senior Trent Hurley previously played at Heinz Field as a senior at Greensburg Central Catholic High School, helping the Centurions win their first-ever district title in 2009.
Hurley threw for over 2,000 yards and 22 touchdowns against seven interceptions in 2013, so Delaware's offense should prove a nice early test, but a manageable one, for a Pitt defense that needs to build confidence after matriculating Aaron Donald to the NFL.
Make the Iron Man Their New Avenger
There is one upside to graduating Aaron Donald, the most decorated player on what was a .500 team: It allows room for new heroes to take center stage, and sophomore tailback James Conner is one of them.
Conner led the Panthers with 799 yards on the ground and eight rushing touchdowns as a pure freshman in 2013. He rumbled for 229 yards and one TD against Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Bowl, breaking a Pitt postseason record that had stood since Tony Dorsett raced for 202—and the school's last national championship—in the Sugar Bowl Jan. 1, 1977.
Now, after four years of two-way excellence at Erie (Pa.) McDowell High School, followed by a most inspiring maiden voyage at Pitt, Conner has been called upon to bring iron-man football to Heinz Field. He affirmed Paul Chryst's comments to reporters Monday that, in addition to battling senior tailback Isaac Bennett for reps on offense, he will line up occasionally as a pass-rushing defensive end this season.
The cost of turning a thoroughbred into a plow horse can be a heavy one. But despite taking on more responsibilities, and despite having to recover from a knee sprain suffered during spring drills, Conner is physically, if not mentally, ready.
"Everybody's going to see what I'm going to do next," he told me. "I have to have a short-term memory, stay consistent and run hard for the whole team."
If Conner continues to impress the pants off his coaches with his resonant western Pennsylvania toughness, then he shares the title of most marketable Panther with prodigious receiver Tyler Boyd.
Boyd joined Conner on preseason watch lists for the Maxwell (national player of the year) and Paul Hornung (nation's most versatile player) Awards, and he might be the next Larry Fitzgerald. Heck, he's already broken Fitz's Pitt freshman records for receptions and yards. But he won't sneak up on opposing defenses this year, and the Panthers will need Conner to keep them honest and open things up for the passing game.
Donald ultimately had two jobs: knock everyone on their posteriors, and do it well enough to sell a few extra tickets. Now it's time to pass that torch to "The Hammer."
Put a Spring in Their Step
Sure, Paul Chryst is trying to build a championship program at Pitt, but first and foremost, he's trying to build a credible one. In the meantime, there is something the man who writes Chryst's check, athletic director Steve Pederson, can do to build the program's credibility even before toe meets leather Aug. 30: announce the return of the Blue-Gold Game in 2015.
Pitt's cancellation of its spring game this year was a matter of intent versus impact. It wasn't wrong of Chryst to want to do everything in his power to protect the health of his team. It also wasn't wrong of him to want to use that time to milk extra productivity from his team, as he explained to Chip Patterson of CBS Sports, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
However, it's never wrong of fans to expect a certain level of professionalism from an ACC program that makes no bones about wanting to be mentioned in the same breath as the teams they constantly find themselves looking up at in the polls. Holding other fan-friendly activities in lieu of a spring game, despite its noble intentions, does Pitt's gravitas no good.
Imagine if Florida State decided not to hold a spring game. Or Virginia Tech. Or Clemson.
Not only have those three ACC flag-bearers made a regular spectacle of their spring games, they've also gotten exposure for their programs with coverage provided by the ESPN family of networks.
But Pederson shouldn't stop at bringing back the Blue-Gold Game. The next sentence out of his mouth or in his press release should confirm the return of the event to Heinz Field.
Pitt has held its last couple spring games at local high schools—again, with noble intentions. But would Penn State ever hold its spring game at State College High? Would Alabama ever shift its spring game to Hoover? Would the USC Trojans ever move theirs to Mater Dei?
Say what you will about Todd Graham, but one thing Chryst's predecessor did right while on Pederson's payroll was fight the latter tooth and nail to keep the Blue-Gold Game at Heinz Field. Graham may have been only looking out for himself, but he could still see the eyes of prized recruits become wide as dinner plates as they watched the event unfold against the epic backdrop of an NFL stadium.
Chryst and Pederson have a rapport strong enough that, if Chryst took time to re-examine the intangible benefits of a well-staged spring game to his fanbase and recruiting base, the two could reach what would be a most welcome agreement.
Was the Chad Great?
The 2014 Panthers need more watershed moments from probable starting quarterback Chad Voytik like the kind that took place when he relieved outgoing Tom Savage in the Little Caesars Bowl.
Plus, as long as we're stating the obvious, let's throw this out there: Until Paul Chryst arrived in Pittsburgh, the program wasn't exactly knocking it out of PNC Park when it came to recruiting and developing quarterbacks, which has been a tremendous hindrance. Chryst got an awful lot out of two men who, at the time, drummed up guarded optimism at best.
First there was Tino Sunseri, whose career at Pitt, under multiple coaches, got worse before it got better. When it did get better, though, it got better in a big way. Chryst developed a much healthier relationship with the Pittsburgh Central Catholic product, who set single-season program records for completions and most consecutive attempts without a pick. Sunseri went on to the CFL.
Then there was Savage, a pro-style journeyman who transferred to Pitt—his third different school—to make good on one more year of eligibility. He indeed made it a good one, throwing for the fifth-most single-season yards in Panther history, and attracting attention from the Houston Texans, who drafted him in the fourth round this past spring.
The pressure now shifts to Voytik, a dual-threat signal-caller who has waited his turn since being recruited on Todd Graham's watch. He and his teammates understand the importance of leaving that bowl victory in the past, but not doing so without learning from it.
"We've got to trust what Coach is telling us, and he's telling us the right things," Voytik told me. "If we take what he's teaching us and apply it, the sky's the limit."
The 6'1", 205-pound redshirt sophomore has shown he can scramble just as well as he can hit a speedster like Tyler Boyd in stride. His ceiling appears much higher, and once Chryst gets him to reach it, Pitt may finally have the caliber offense the head coach envisioned from the beginning.
It isn't insane to think Voytik could one day break Rod Rutherford's Pitt single-season record of 3,679 passing yards in 2003. It isn't insane to think he could do it soon. Until then, his objectives are to stay upright, think on his feet and not turn the ball over more than 5-10 times.
Oh, and to make the occasional 60-yard splash play, too.
Eight Is Enough
I'm not one to prognosticate an entire season, week by week, before a single game has been played. Alas, I shall temporarily succumb to ESPN-itis by predicting that an eight-win campaign will maintain the health of Pitt's fanbase, get the Panthers to a bowl game other than those hosted by Birmingham and Detroit and possibly even give them a chance to win the watered-down Coastal Division.
From where might those eight wins come?
Even an average effort by the Panthers should be enough to down Delaware in their opener. A proverbial cat fight with the Golden Panthers at Florida International Sept. 13 should prove no match for Pitt either.
But history says, at some point, Pitt will lose a game it shouldn't. Will the Panthers fall into a Friday night trap Sept. 5 on Chestnut Hill, where they've won only once in their history?
In the event they survive Boston College, they'll be 3-0 heading home to face Iowa, a coin-flip contender for a Big Ten Championship Game berth. The Hawkeyes, offensively, might be a bit too much for them, but Pitt should bounce right back the following week against visiting Akron.
Look for the Panthers to collect victories five and six by sweeping Virginia and Virginia Tech. The Hoos will have a tough time climbing out of the Coastal Division cellar in 2014, and the Panthers will resume their tradition of making Frank Beamer their punching bag after having an extra week to prepare for a Thursday night game against a less proven quarterback at Heinz Field.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Pitt's 2014 schedule is that three of their most important games are all in a row, and all at home: the Hokies Oct. 16, Georgia Tech Oct. 25 and Duke Nov. 1. Winning two of those three will be key, and although the Yellow Jackets' option attack will give Pitt problems, it proved last year it can keep pace with the Blue Devils.
Then, if the Panthers handle their business in the home finale against Syracuse Nov. 22 (Pitt has won its last five home meetings with the Orange), they'll hit the magic number.
Extra Point: Can the Canes
Once again, the Panthers will end the regular season with one of their toughest matchups, a Nov. 29 contest against the host Miami Hurricanes, a team that has owned them going back to their days as a Division I independent.
Miami has won 16 of the last 17 meetings, spanning Pitt's entire Big East era, and this one could decide the Coastal Division crown for at least one of the two teams. At the very least, it could affect where the Panthers go bowling this year.
Paul Chryst's first victory at Pitt came over a top-15 Virginia Tech squad, and he should have had an even greater signature win in South Bend that year. His team got its revenge on Notre Dame last year, but for Pitt to concoct a way to win in Sun Life Stadium would send a much more powerful message to its fans and the rest of the ACC.
We've already talked about the number eight being an important threshold for Panther victories in 2014. The number eight is also significant because it's worn by senior Will linebacker Todd Thomas, who will be a key for Pitt not only against The U, but throughout its entire season.
Thomas entered his junior year in a good place physically. However, he needs to enter his senior year in a better place mentally than he was a year ago; one of the biggest stories of 2013 training camp was his brief absence from the team.
The 6'2", 230-pound Beaver Falls (Pa.) alumnus overcame internal strife and, for the first time in his collegiate career, didn't miss a single game. He finished fourth on the team with 72 total tackles in 2013, and he'll need to continue leading by example a linebacking corps that needs improvement.
Miami's Duke Johnson, one of the top tailbacks in the conference, is just one of the rising ACC stars who must be contained by a defense that dropped to No. 69 nationally with 27.2 points allowed per game.
How badly will they miss a playmaker like Aaron Donald? Thomas will have something to say about that.
Highlights courtesy of Erie Highlight Reel, Panther Sports Network, ACC Digital Network and Pitt LiveWire. Statistics courtesy of NCAA.com, Phil Steele's 2014 College Football Preview (purchase required), the University of Delaware and the University of Pittsburgh Athletic Media Relations Office. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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