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Pitt still building after Chryst's first 25 games

| Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, 11:27 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt quarterback Tom Savage drops back to pass agiant New Mexico on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, at Heinz Field.

No one knows for sure if coach Paul Chryst will be successful in trying to rebuild the Pitt football program. Bill Fralic, a former Pitt star lineman who was critical of the program before Chryst arrived, said last week, “I think a lot of Paul Chryst and I wish him well. He's a quality man. But he has a lot of work to do.” Here are highlights and lowlights of Chryst's pre-bowl work in his second season, which started 4-2 before turning upside down with a 2-4 closing stretch. In the end, Pitt (6-6) did nothing more than tease its fans.

Ground (almost) to a halt

Chryst has pointed out repeatedly Pitt can't be the team he wants it to be until it can generate a running game. Pitt could not replace the 1,683 yards amassed by 2012 backs Ray Graham and Rushel Shell. Isaac Bennett and James Conner have totaled only 1,365. They are hard-working runners who will benefit if the returning linemen improve and all those massive recruits work out as planned. If, though, is a big word.

Tom, we hardly knew you

Although he arrived with only one year of eligibility, quarterback Tom Savage quickly proved to be a brave leader, unafraid to absorb hits and an inspiration to his teammates. He just needed more time to find his receivers, something he couldn't do looking up at the sky after another sack. Still a little raw, Savage said he could “care less” about the NFL. He is trying to win games now. Pitt will miss him as much as Aaron Donald.

Wannstedt's parting gift

The mystery of the 2010 recruiting season was how so many schools were so wrong about Aaron Donald, who was almost as dominant at Penn Hills (on a relative scale) as he has been in his senior season at Pitt. Give former coach Dave Wannstedt credit for offering Donald a scholarship, although his only real competition was Toledo. OK, Donald's only 6-foot tall. Don't blame those other coaches. It's tough to measure a young man's heart.

Most improved player

Criticism of safety Ray Vinopal on social media got so intense that he shut down his Twitter account. That was his second-smartest move. The first was drifting to his left, unseen by Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees, and intercepting a pass in the end zone — his first of two thefts on consecutive throws — triggering a comeback victory against the Irish. Vinopal's biggest sin? Growing 5 inches shorter than Georgia Tech wide receiver Deandre Smelter. Otherwise, well done, Ray.

Signature Moments

Pitt football ushered itself into the high-stakes world of college football by joining the ACC this season, and attracting — with the help of high-profile opponents Florida State and Notre Dame — sellout crowds of 65,500 (by the school's count) to Heinz Field. The trick will be getting people to return next season when FSU and the Irish aren't coming to town. Hey, here's an idea — win a few more games.

Most troubling development

Back injuries hurt Pitt this season as much as any opponent. The offensive line didn't have a lot of depth, but Chryst was forced to dip into it when Adam Bisnowaty and Cory King started experiencing back pain. Promising pass rusher Ejuan Price also has a back problem, and he missed six games. Chryst said he will evaluate his weight and strength program in the off-season — just like he does every area of the team — but he is not ready to blame it for the injuries.

Most amazing game

When Pitt beat Duke, 58-55, Sept. 21, it was thought to be a nice victory against an ACC weakling with a poor defense. Wrong. Duke won eight in a row after Savage recorded the fourth-best passing performance in Pitt history (424 yards). Duke's defense had a few holes that day, and Chryst knew how to find them. Amazing what good pass protection (only two sacks) and a running game (James Conner ran for 173 yards) can do for a team.

Paving a path to the future

Most coaches avoid playing too many freshmen. But Chryst had no choice. In the cases of wide receiver Tyler Boyd, Conner and kicker Chris Blewitt, they are better than most — if not all — of the older players at their positions. A total of 12 freshmen played key roles. Also, junior tight end Manasseh Garner, a transfer from Wisconsin, became a go-to target for Savage. Who knows how all of these players will develop? With them, though, the future is less cloudy.

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