Less than a month after two alums were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Pitt Panthers lost to a Championship Subdivision opponent for the first time.
Those two events illustrate the opportunity and challenge confronting rookie head coach Paul Chryst, whose team hosts Virginia Tech on Saturday.
The upside is the program’s heritage. The August enshrinement of former Jets running back Curtis Martin and ex-Vikings defensive end Chris Doleman bring to eight the number of Panthers honored in Canton. Only Southern California (11) and Notre Dame (10) boast more.
The downside is Pitt’s 0-2 start. The Panthers lost to FCS Youngstown State 31-17 and Big East rival Cincinnati 34-10, the latter on ESPN – not the national exposure you want.
“Obviously disappointed,” Chryst said Monday on the Big East media call. “We saw some improvement (against Cincinnati), saw some guys growing, thought we played with better energy than we did our first game.”
The 13th-ranked Hokies have been less-than-stellar offensively in opening victories over Georgia Tech and Austin Peay, but they appear markedly better than Pitt.
The Panthers are yielding 6.0 yards per rush, have committed four turnovers and caused none. On the first snap of the Cincinnati game, the Bearcats’ George Winn raced 58 yards inside the tackles and was untouched en route to the end zone. In the fourth quarter, Cincinnati drove 99 yards for a punctuating touchdown.
Pitt’s defense has allowed 17-of-29 third-down conversions. The offense has yielded six sacks.
Missteps are not surprising. Chryst, formerly the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, his alma mater, has used 10 first-time starters on defense. Hours before kickoff against Youngstown State, citing unspecified rules violations, he suspended six players for the game, including starting nose tackle Tyrone Edell.
But the degree of the difficulties – losing by two touchdowns at home to an FCS school and being non-competitive in the conference opener -- has been alarming. With an experienced quarterback in Tino Sunseri and tailback Ray Graham back from an ACL injury, certainly the offense figured to be better than last season, when Pitt was 6-7 and allowed a Bowl Sudivision-high 63 sacks.
Graham is averaging 5.3 yards per carry, but he’s about to encounter a defense that slowed Georgia Tech’s option like few others and toyed with overmatched Austin Peay.
Since Virginia Tech hired Frank Beamer prior to the 1987 season, Pitt has employed 11 head coaches, including three interim: Mike Gottfried, Paul Hackett, interim Sal Sunseri, Johnny Majors, Walt Harris, Dave Wannstedt, interim Phil Bennett, Mike Haywood, Todd Graham, interim Keith Patterson and Chryst.
Haywood never coached a game, charged with domestic battery shortly after his appointment and subsequently fired. His successor, Graham, bailed after one season (2011) for Arizona State.
You can’t overstate the affect of such instability on Pitt, and stability on Virginia Tech.
“You look at the landscape of college football,” Chryst said. “They’ve set the bar. They’re one of the top programs. … You look at (Saturday’s game) as a measuring stick in a lot of ways.”
The Panthers’ pedigree is evident at the Hall of Fame, where Martin and Doleman joined fellow Pitt alums Joe Schmidt, Mike Ditka, Rickey Jackson, Russ Grimm, Tony Dorsett and Dan Marino. Dorsett won the Heisman Trophy in 1976 and led the Panthers to the national championship.
A candidate to join them in the hall: Cardinals Pro Bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald, the linchpin of 2002 and ’03 victories over the Hokies with 13 catches for 213 yards and four scores.
Tech and Pitt haven’t played since due to the Hokies’ move from the Big East to the ACC, a path the Panthers will follow next year, when they join Tech in the Coastal Division.
From 2001-03, Pitt became only the second Big East opponent – Miami was the other – to defeat Virginia Tech in three consecutive seasons.
A repeat does not appear imminent.
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