Panthers, Hawkeyes looking for legitimacy
PITTSBURGH – Paul Chryst doesn’t do hype.
If Pittsburgh keeps winning, however, the unassuming third-year head coach knows the Panthers will be unable to avoid it.
It’s a notion Chryst can live with. Besides, it beats the alternative. So while he is doing everything he can to downplay his team’s 3-0 start heading into Saturday’s game against scuffling Iowa (2-1) – even bemoaning a rushing attack that ranks fourth in the country behind sophomore James Conner – Chryst is also prepping his program for dealing with the trappings of success.
“I think guys when they come, and we talk about it all the time, ‘Why did you come to Pitt?'” Chryst said. “It’s to play in games like we get an opportunity to play in here. You’ve got a chance, if you do stuff, to be recognized.”
Forgive Pitt if it’s out of practice. The Panthers haven’t won their first four games since 2000. Find a way to reach that milestone against the Hawkeyes and a solid September has a chance to evolve into something considerably more serious.
“I believe we can win our division and go to the ACC championship,” senior safety Ray Vinopal said. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be fighting so hard for it. But it’s not what I believe in, it’s what can we achieve. This week would certainly help our outlook.”
So would a victory for Iowa, which is still smarting after a late collapse against rival Iowa State last week.
The Hawkeyes have been unable to generate much offense under coordinator Greg Davis. At a time when teams are scoring at an unprecedented rate, Iowa is averaging a modest 21.3 points per game, 102nd in the country.
Coach Kirk Ferentz shrugged his shoulders when pressed about the inability to get much traction.
“Clearly we’re not operating as well as we need to,” he said. “Seventeen points the other day wasn’t enough to win. That’s the bottom line.”
Some things to look for as Pitt attempts to build a case as a legitimate contender in the ACC and the Hawkeyes try to avoid entering Big Ten play on a losing streak.
A month ago Chryst talked at length about using Conner as a dual threat at running back and defensive end. Those plans are buried in the back of the playbook. Conner’s 544 yards are a school record through three games and his eight rushing touchdowns lead the country. Iowa is sixth against the run, but has yet to face anyone like Conner.
“He’s strong, he’s fast,” Ferentz said of Conner. “He has a good ability to pick holes, see holes. They’re very big and very athletic up front.”
Addition by subtraction
Iowa’s last visit to Heinz Field came in 2008 and ended in a loss that wound up being a turning point for the program. Ferentz chose to go with Jake Christensen over a young Ricky Stanzi at quarterback in the second half, and the Hawkeyes fell 21-20.
Iowa started Stanzi the following week, and he led the Hawkeyes to 16 wins in their next 20 games – including an Orange Bowl victory over Georgia Tech following the 2009 season.
Iowa also returned the favor in 2011 in Iowa City, rallying from 17 down to beat Pitt 31-27.
“We reached our goal that day. It was a good day. It wasn’t easy,” Ferentz said.
Ferentz attended Upper St. Clair High in suburban Pittsburgh, and his first college job was as a graduate assistant with Pitt in 1980. Ferentz had committed to a second season with the Panthers before Hayden Fry posted an opening for an offensive line coach. Ferentz applied on a lark, got the job and spent the next nine seasons as an assistant in Iowa City.
“My only intent was just to interview so I knew how to interview, so when I had to go look for a job the next year, I’d have some clue what I was doing. That was the only reason I came out here. The rest is history,” Ferentz said.
While Chad Voytik still has a strong hold on the starting quarterback job, Chryst will continue to insert backup Trey Anderson when he believes Voytik needs a break. Chryst sent Anderson in during the second half last week against Florida International even though Voytik had rallied the Panthers from a 16-0 deficit. “I think there are times when you have to take what the defense gives you,” Chryst said of Voytik. “I thought that he just needed to sit back, see the game, and realize that it’s just a game.”
Pitt’s start was nearly undone against lowly FIU when the Panthers feel behind by three scores before surging to a 42-25 triumph. The defense considered it a necessary wake-up call they don’t expect to be repeated.
“The ball bounces however it’s going to bounce, but we were able to respond and bounce back after a rough start,” defensive tackle Darryl Render said. “This adversity can only help us in the remaining games.”