Over the many years of blogging, both sides of this Pitt-Syracuse game have noted the complete lack of vitriol and hatred. Despite Syracuse being Pitt’s (tied for) 3d most played opponent in football. And the fact that they will have the #3 spot all alone in a few years when ND starts rotating on and off the schedule, there isn’t much of a burning desire to burn their city and make them cry when it comes to football. Everyone wants the win, but no one circles this game on the calendar when the schedule is announced.
My longstanding theory is that, despite the closeness of the historical series — Pitt holds a 34-30-3 edge — the fact that neither team has been good at the same time has muted it. Pitt dominated them in the 70s. Syracuse ruled in the 80s and 90s. Now Pitt has been the force for the past 10 years, winning 9 of 10. How do you build up hate if only one side is ever playing for anything? If the other is stuck in their latest down-cycle or rebuilding?
So, instead, what has the team been up to with a bye week?
Cutting down on penalties was a stated priority for Coach Chryst.
Chryst said a goal will be to reduce the number of penalties. Through four games, Pitt (2-2) ranks 87th in Division I-A with 7.5 flags per game, costing them 69.75 yards per contest.
Not to mention, improve the kicking game.
Ray Graham is trying to get closer to 100%.
“I feel like after a full year, once I start feeling good to where I’m not thinking about anything at all, it gives me no problems, I think that’s when I’ll take the brace off and keep things going,” Graham, 11 months removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL, told ESPN.com.
The biggest change from the first two games and the next two games, the defense was getting off the field.
“It’s a work in progress, but the guys have been working really hard, and they’re staying very, very positive and upbeat,” defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable said. “They’re giving us everything they’ve got. We’re nowhere [near] where we want to be yet, not even close, but we’re just going to continue to work hard as a coaching staff and as a group of players.”
The most common refrain coming from Huxtable as well as defensive players is that players have simply understood and executed their assignments better in the past two games. The Panthers were not physically dominated in the first two games, they just weren’t where they were supposed to be.
Those mistakes are particularly evident on plays such as the 58-yard touchdown run by Cincinnati’s George Winn on the Bearcats’ first play three weeks ago. If a linebacker had been there to fill the hole, Winn could have been stopped for a minimal gain.
Um, the defense was definitely dominated. The reasons may have primarily involved not being in the right place, but they were were being overwhelmed. That they now have a better sense of what they should be doing and where is a positive, but it still frustrates that they couldn’t get the understanding sooner.
At the same time, it isn’t like the defense was the only unit to have things finally start to click after a rocky first couple of weeks.
Like most of the team, Pitt’s receivers have been trying to answer questions about what had changed during the two-game winning streak that followed the team’s 0-2 start. The passing offense — which ranked 52nd in Division I-A with 258.5 yards per game two weeks ago — now is No. 23 at 299.25 yards per game.
Receivers have credited increased practice repetitions, assignment knowledge and hard work as reasons for improvement. Shanahan, though, also said the Panthers have simplified the playbook a bit.
“We kind of scaled back on the different plays that we’ve been running,” he said. “We rep a lot of the same plays at practice. We’re just getting really good and comfortable with them, and we know what can beat certain coverages.”
And of course, since Coach Chryst is the new coach, he has a style that the players are responding well to — especially now that they have won a couple games.
Receiver Devin Street, who hasn’t caught fewer than four passes in any game this season, calls Chryst “a great teacher.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been around a coach with so much knowledge about the game,” he said.
Senior receiver Mike Shanahan, who has at least five receptions in every game, said he appreciates the respect shown to the seniors, which allows them to adopt leadership roles in the locker room.
But another side of Chryst has endeared him to his players.
“He is always cracking jokes, making fun of people,” Shanahan said.
A frequent target is senior receiver Cam Saddler, who isn’t afraid to give it right back.
“That’s another cool part,” Shanahan said. “We can fire some shots back at him if we want to.”
Of course, if Pitt had not won the last couple of games, the narrative would not be that sunny. Instead it would be about how he needs to be the head coach. Let the players know he is in charge. Crack the whip. Etc.