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Kovacevic: Chryst has lots to fix, little time

| Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012, 11:01 p.m.
Pitt saftey Andrew Taglianetti gets beat by Youngstown State's Andre Stubbs for a first half touchdown at Heinz Field Sept. 1, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review
Pitt head coach Paul Chryst to the field after Ray Graham fumbles to Youngstown State at Heinz Field Sept. 1, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review
Pitt running back Ray Graham stays on the ground after fumbling as wide receiver Mike Shanahan looks on against Youngstown State on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012, at Heinz Field. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)
Pitt cornerback Lafayette Pitts gets stiff armed by Youngstown State's Jamaine Cook in the first half at Heinz Field Sept. 1, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

It's as if the two games were penned as parallel scripts, intended to illustrate the sad state of big-time college football across our commonwealth.

Ohio 24, Penn State 14

Youngstown State 31, Pitt 17

Both were headlined by dubious head coaching debuts. Both were double-digit defeats. To seriously small-time programs from Ohio. At home. In front of non-sellouts.

And yeah — let's say it — both had a wholly legitimate feel. Upsets tend to be fluky. Turnovers get converted for touchdowns. Bizarre bounces bring violent swings. These games weren't like that at all. Ohio outgained Penn State, 499-352. Youngstown State outgained Pitt by a slim 381-369 but had 10 more minutes of possession.

These were not upsets.

Still, even amid all that symmetry, I'll maintain Pitt's loss was worse.

For one thing, Youngstown State is an FCS school, which is the NCAA's new euphemism for Division I-AA. Before becoming the first group of Penguins to win at Heinz Field — football or hockey — they were 6-5 last season and forecast this season to finish third in the ... hang on, I'll find it ... Missouri Valley Football Conference.

Don't misunderstand. Youngstown State should be terrific in its class. But it's a cupcake for any respectable Division I program.

For another, what's Pitt's excuse?

We know Penn State's excuse, and it's real. Ten players, including some of the Nittany Lions' top talents, transferred.

Who knows how many more will be turned off in the future?

Who knows how many years it will take?

Pitt's problems are of a different scale and, thus, more difficult to grasp. The Panthers came in with experience, if not great skill, on offense. The defense was to be a strength. The coaching staff was to set things right, replacing Todd Graham's left-lane, high-octane mess with a more basic pro style.

Where was it?

And more important, how will coach Paul Chryst change all that went awry in a short week, with Pitt traveling to face defending Big East champion Cincinnati on Thursday?

“We've certainly got to become a better football team, and I think we can,” Chryst said in an unwavering tone Saturday night. “It's in our hands now to go forward. I believe this group can go forward, and we will go forward.”

Sounds swell, but how?

Quarterback Tino Sunseri will get the brunt of the blame from the fans, and it won't be entirely fair. He threw for 239 yards with a touchdown, no picks and, most surprising, no sacks.

But this notion that Sunseri would be a better fit in a pro set was grounded before takeoff. He still couldn't connect — or even look — downfield. He was still glancing only to his left or right, still dumping the ball off as if it were ablaze, still rush, rush, rushing as if he could hear Graham barking in his earhole.

Can Chryst change that?

Not with personnel. He's evidently made up its mind to save freshman Chad Voytik for four-year eligibility, so he'll have to squeeze something out of Sunseri.

The receivers have experience and promise, particularly big Mike Shanahan with those soft hands and Devin Street with breakaway speed. But if their routes are limited to that left-right scope, that promise will be manifested mostly through 6-yard gains.

Can Chryst change that?

The running game has the most room to grow, assuming Ray Graham regains his old form. But that's asking a lot coming off major knee surgery. He had flashes Saturday but also an opening-drive fumble. He looked apprehensive, not at all himself.

It wouldn't hurt if Rushel Shell — as well as the other five players Chryst suspended from the opener for unspecified disciplinary reasons — got his act together.

Graham and Shell should be stars, not question marks.

Can Chryst change that?

No facet was worse than the defense, most glaringly pegged by Youngstown State's 204 rushing yards. The line got shoved around, and the linebackers had no answer.

It was so bleak that, when safety Andrew Taglianetti, maybe the defense's only real playmaker, bluntly replied, “I'm already thinking about Cincinnati.”

Can Chryst change that?

For that matter, can Chryst change the stuff he fouled up?

Who else to blame for the mind-warping play call on fourth-and-1 in the third quarter that saw Isaac Bennett take a deep handoff, then swing to his left in search of a hole?

Bennett got blown up by the strong safety.

Up the middle, anyone?

QB sneak?

To his credit, Chryst, unlike his predecessor, took his share of the fall: “No question, I've got to do a better job of coaching. We've all got to be better.”

Funny, but he sounded a lot like Bill O'Brien.

And, barring dramatic change soon, both might sound like that for quite a while.

Ladies and gentlemen, Pennsylvania's new powerhouse, the … Temple Owls?

Don't laugh.

Temple 41, Villanova 10

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