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Pitt seniors try to extend their stay

| Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Three weeks ago, Pitt coach Paul Chryst — in a rare moment of candor — questioned his players' effort after a disappointing loss to Connecticut.

Two of his seniors were listening, and they didn't like what they heard.

“That kind of bothered me and Ray (Graham),” wide receiver Cam Saddler said. “We said, ‘You know what? Let's play special teams and show what effort looks like.' ”

And so they did during the game last week against Rutgers.

With Chryst's blessings, Graham, one of the best running backs in the Big East, and Saddler served as gunners on punt coverage for the first time this season, fighting off blocks and hunting down return men when they weren't performing their regular duties on scrimmage plays. Senior wide receiver Mike Shanahan joined them on the punt block unit.

Pitt won that day, 27-6, and the memory of seniors contributing more than what's expected may linger as the Panthers prepare to play at South Florida on Saturday. A loss would eliminate Pitt from bowl eligibility.

“Hopefully everybody else will jump on board,” Saddler said. “Even if it's not this year, maybe we set a tone for next year: ‘Remember when Ray and Cam ran down as gunners?'

“We're trying to win, man. It's coming to an end, and me and Ray are going to do whatever to get a W.”

Saddler, who will return punts despite a painful left shoulder, said the team is feeling a sense of urgency, not pressure.

“I think everybody knows we need this win,” he said. “But it's not a feeling (of being) uptight. Let's have some fun. Guys are kind of relaxed.”

Chryst's message to his players is that winning is less important than the process that leads to it.

“The focus shouldn't be on winning the game,” Chryst said. “The focus should be on doing your best, playing your best and playing good football. Winning is a by-product of that. That is the thing we are trying to hammer home.”

Chryst wants to win so he can escort Pitt to its fifth consecutive bowl game in his first season as coach.

But he is not overwhelmed by the desire.

“Every time you compete, you want to win,” he said. “With that being said, I don't know if there is ever a ‘You have to win,' either. We've lost games and the world didn't stop.

“Don't take that for not being competitive; it's a sport. You are competing, and it's important to you.

“But I do know the focus has to be on playing the best football you can.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jdipaola@tribweb.com or 412-320-7997.

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