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Pitt notebook: Freshmen again prove impressive when it counts

| Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, 9:12 p.m.
Sidney Davis I Tribune-Review
Pitt center Artie Rowell tries to make space for running back Issac Bennett against Virginia on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, at Heinz Field.

On a day when several Pitt players looked out of sorts and out of sync, leave it to the freshmen to preserve the 14-3 victory against Virginia.

Pitt improved to 3-1 while freshmen Tyler Boyd, James Conner, Matt Galambos and Rachid Ibrahim were among the most important contributors.

“I really like how a lot of young guys are playing early,” said Galambos, a freshman from The Haverford School near Philadelphia. “We are going to be dangerous pretty soon.”

Galambos made his first career start in place of senior linebacker Shane Gordon, who missed the game with a rib injury.

Ibrahim, a freshman running back from Rockville, Md., came off the bench to replace Conner and junior Isaac Bennett. He had three carries for 23 yards on Pitt's last series of the game that started on its 3 while the Panthers were protecting their lead.

The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Ibrahim finished with 26 yards on four carries, 1 yard less than Conner, who led the Panthers with 27 on 15 carries.

“I think Rachid is the player of the game in my eyes,” Conner said. “When his name was called, he made the most of it. Rachid is the whole package. Once he gets more weight on his bones, he will be the real deal.”

Galambos and Ibrahim had played lesser roles earlier this season, and Galambos said Pitt coaches told him as early as the first days of training camp to be ready to contribute.

“They told me in the beginning, ‘You are going to help this team, whether it's special teams or different packages,'” Galambos said. “I said I was going to try to make some kind of impact.”

Pitt has used 12 freshmen and seven redshirt freshmen.

Special guests

Conner had special inspiration for the game, with Jason and Sarah O'Neill, parents of his friend and former Erie McDowell High School classmate Alyssa O'Neill, in attendance at Heinz Field.

Alyssa died Sept. 4 after an epileptic seizure.

“Alyssa was watching over me,” he said. “It was an awesome feeling. I'm glad (the O'Neills) had good seats.”

The O'Neills also met Pitt coach Paul Chryst after the game.

Continued success

Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald and outside linebacker Todd Thomas continued their streak of making big plays.

Donald had two of Pitt's three sacks of Virginia quarterback David Watford, giving him 24 12 for his four-year career. That's good for seventh place on the school's all-time list, ahead of Brandon Lindsey (22 12), Dennis Atiyeh (23) and Bryan Knight (23 12). Donald is one-half behind Pro Football Hall of Famer Chris Doleman, who had 25 between 1981-1984.

Thomas recorded a fourth-down stop for the third consecutive week, chasing down Virginia running back Kevin Parks for no gain on fourth-and-2 in the second quarter. Thomas also stopped fake-punt attempts against New Mexico and Duke.

“Communication was on point, and everybody was making plays,” Donald said. “We were a lot more comfortable. We just had fun today.”

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