Pitt hopes to build on play of freshmen
By Jerry DiPaola
Published: Friday, Dec. 27, 2013, 11:36 p.m.
Aaron Donald put his big, right arm around Pitt coach Paul Chryst and, with meaning, patted him on the back.
Pitt's All-American defensive tackle had just played his final game in a richly decorated career, and in his eyes, Donald is leaving the program in good hands.
“For the younger guys, for next year, it gives you something to build off of,” said Donald after Pitt's 30-27 victory against MAC champion Bowling Green. “To know that the program is going to be back on top with coach Chryst. That's a guarantee.”
Sorry, there are no guarantees in sports.
“Each year is a different year,” Chryst said.
For all the euphoria and smiles from players and coaches after an exhilarating victory, Chryst is a .500 coach (13-13) in his first two Pitt seasons. The team that beat Bowling Green lost four of its final six regular-season games. It also struggled on the local recruiting trail this year.
Still, the 2013 season marked a culture change for Pitt that Chryst should — but won't — take credit for generating. No longer do players sit around feeling sorry for themselves, waiting for something bad to happen. Their coach won't tolerate those who worry about matters out of their control.
Pitt played the bowl game without three starting offensive linemen, senior wide receiver Devin Street and junior Bryan Murphy, the team's best defensive end. No problem. It totaled 487 yards of offense and a season-high seven quarterback sacks, most of it by underclassmen.
Four freshmen — quarterback Chad Voytik (a redshirt), wide receiver Tyler Boyd, running back James Conner and kicker Chris Blewitt — made the decisive plays.
“You definitely feel like the future is bright,” Conner said. “I love playing next to Tyler and love watching him play. He always makes SportsCenter top 10 highlight plays, so he's fun to watch, and he's fun to play with. Chris has a big foot, and he helps us out. And Chad was awesome coming in for Tom. With us four making some noise and some of the redshirt guys coming in next year, the program's definitely in good hands, especially with coach Chryst being our head coach. The future is bright.”
Several other first-year players such as right guard Dorian Johnson, defensive end Shakir Soto, linebacker Matt Galambos and defensive backs Titus Howard and Terrish Webb were shoved into important positions throughout the season.
“I am excited about the future,” Chryst said.
Now, there's an upset.
For Chryst to express excitement says more than any victory could. He is understated to a fault, never getting too generous with praise, but always giving his players the chance to prove their worth.
Boyd finished with 85 receptions for 1,174 yards — the most catches by a Pitt player since Larry Fitzgerald in 2003 and the most yards since Jon Baldwin in 2009.
Conner, who also played backup defensive end against Bowling Green and induced an offensive holding call late in the game, led the team in rushing yards — 799 to 797 —over junior Isaac Bennett.
Freshman Rachid Ibrahim also was part of the mix. With two running backs in the Class of 2014, including four-star Chris James, there is the potential for good depth at the position, even after losing Washington High's Shai McKenzie to Virginia Tech.
Meanwhile, Voytik answered some questions at quarterback by playing with poise, making two important runs (20 yards and 4 for a touchdown) and completing a 62-yard strike to Boyd in the fourth quarter.
“You can't ask for much more, young talent and years to play with them,” he said.
Voytik came off the bench cold, grabbed his teammates by the collar and helped will them to victory.
“Guys needed him, and guys rallied around him,” Chryst said. “That's what a team does.”
Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.
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