Ending the season with a win in a bowl game — regardless of the level of the bowl — provides a certain level of positive energy. Heck, just finishing with a big win even without a bowl helps (13-9 being the ultimate proof).
Next season may be 9 months away. Training camp, 8 months from now. Spring practices aren’t until March. Signing day is about six weeks out.
But right now, it is a good feeling. Finishing the year 7-6 feels a lot better than 6-7. A 3-5 record in the ACC has more positives than a 3-4 record from the final year of the Big East. They aren’t huge steps forward, but there is some sense that there is improvement.
How much of that is the lingering positive energy of the win and how much is reality remains to be seen. You don’t have to be a blind follower to feel good right now about the team, the coach and the possibilities. You also don’t have have to be a complete hater to see the problems, the holes, the gaping questions that are all over. Both aspects are there. Both aspects are true.
“For the younger guys, for next year, it gives you something to build off of,” said Donald after Pitt’s 30-27 victory against MAC champion Bowling Green. “To know that the program is going to be back on top with coach Chryst. That’s a guarantee.”
Sorry, there are no guarantees in sports.
“Each year is a different year,” Chryst said.
For all the euphoria and smiles from players and coaches after an exhilarating victory, Chryst is a .500 coach (13-13) in his first two Pitt seasons. The team that beat Bowling Green lost four of its final six regular-season games. It also struggled on the local recruiting trail this year.
Still, the 2013 season marked a culture change for Pitt that Chryst should — but won’t — take credit for generating. No longer do players sit around feeling sorry for themselves, waiting for something bad to happen. Their coach won’t tolerate those who worry about matters out of their control.
Pitt played the bowl game without three starting offensive linemen, senior wide receiver Devin Street and junior Bryan Murphy, the team’s best defensive end. No problem. It totaled 487 yards of offense and a season-high seven quarterback sacks, most of it by underclassmen.
Four freshmen — quarterback Chad Voytik (a redshirt), wide receiver Tyler Boyd, running back James Conner and Blewitt — made the decisive plays.
“You definitely feel like the future is bright,” Conner said.
The culture change is important, and underrated. Not with the cleaning out of malcontents and holdovers of other coaches. It is much more about the mindset.
During the last year of Wannstedt’s reign, I remember Paul Zeise writing during a chat session or two — and I’m paraphrasing/working from memory — that the biggest problem with the Pitt team often seemed between the ears. That they were too easy to let something go wrong and snowball. Zeise was of the opinion that until those players were out of the program, there would be problems for this team.
I know many of you will want to default to the perpetual whipping boy (and often deserved and continually unsympathetic) Tino Sunseri. It’s easy to think that. He’s gone and suddenly Pitt had second-half comebacks that were not then given back. He was part of it, no question. But that was more than just the quarterback. The defense had similar issues. It was something the prior coaches couldn’t seem to change.
There has been a large amount of churn in the past year. Kids moving out of the program either by graduation or deciding/being pushed to finish their playing days elsewhere.
This is where I’m taking a leap of faith with Coach Chryst. I want to believe he and the staff has made a big change with that intangible. The “culture” around the team. That there is a perceptible change to the mindset among the players in how they approach the games. The practices. The conditioning. The film room.
Will the mindset make a difference in talent difference? Of course not. But we’ve seen all too often in the Big East that Pitt’s supposed better talent failed at key points. Both are needed to get beyond mediocrity.