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Vinopal says time spent watching film paying off as Pitt's defense improves

| Monday, Nov. 11, 2013, 11:00 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Pitt's Ray Vinopal returns the second of his two fourth-quarter interceptions against Notre Dame on Saturday Nov. 9, 2013, at Heinz Field.

When Paul Chryst showed no interest in the Wisconsin job last year to continue working on the project he started at Pitt, the program looked to be on solid ground for the first time since Dave Wannstedt was fired.

Finally, the same message would be sent to the players from one year to the next.

That almost was true.

Chryst changed defensive coordinators, allowing Dave Huxtable to accept the job at North Carolina State and promoting secondary coach Matt House to run the Pitt defense.

Aside from the shift in coaching style — House doesn't scream at practice as often as Huxtable did — the scheme is different. Huxtable wanted a man-to-man concept, and House prefers zone.

“It's a little bit easier,” junior free safety Ray Vinopal said, “so you're not running into (defensive teammates). Intuitively, it makes a little more sense.”

Although players embraced House's concepts, they have been slow to adapt to them on the field.

As a result, the defense struggled at times this season, even as recently as Saturday against Notre Dame.

Here's a partial list of Pitt's toughest times on defense:

• A total of 123 points allowed in the first three games.

• The failure to hold a lead in the loss to Navy.

• Four games of allowing at least 213 rushing yards.

• Four games of allowing at least 312 passing yards, including 318 by the Irish.

“(Huxtable) instilled in us the principles of his defensive scheme,” Vinopal said. “To break those habits, there was a little bit of an adjustment period.

“I think we got (House's) scheme since Week 1. Executing is the bigger question. It's one thing to get it and one thing to go out and carry out the game plan.”

Players have spent as much time studying the system in meeting rooms and film study sessions as sweating with it on the field.

“There is a lot more attention to detail,” Vinopal said. “We are doing a lot better job of preparing. You see guys studying extra tape all the time, which is huge.”

Finally, the Panthers are reaping dividends from their diligence, which is no surprise to Vinopal. He never lost trust.

“I wouldn't say I was expecting to be chasing people down the field every game,” he said.

In the past two weeks, Pitt has created five turnovers, including Vinopal's two interceptions and forced fumble against Notre Dame. Pitt's turnover differential has jumped to plus-3 — only four ACC teams are better.

That's heartening to Pitt's long-suffering fans, but there remains much work to do. Pitt had trouble with Notre Dame tight end Ben Koyack (four catches, 76 yards), and Saturday's opponent, North Carolina, is even better at the position with Eric Ebron (46, 690).

“He might be as good as there is in the country,” Chryst said. “You can make an argument for it because he has size (6-foot-4, 245 pounds), and he can run and all of those things. That can present some problems.”

Note: Vinopal was named ACC defensive back of the week ... Pitt's game against Syracuse at the Carrier Dome will kick off at 12:30 p.m. Nov. 23.

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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