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Panthers ramp up respect quotient for Delaware

| Monday, Aug. 25, 2014, 9:18 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Pitt safety Ray Vinopal drops into coverage during practice Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, on th South Side.

Ray Vinopal hears things. Good leaders always do.

And when he heard talk among teammates that indicated less-than-total respect for Delaware — the FCS opponent Saturday in Pitt's opener at Heinz Field — he took care of it.

Good leaders always do.

“I've heard a few comments in the locker room here and there,” said Vinopal, a senior free safety and defensive captain. “I make sure everyone knows, ‘Squash it right now.' ”

The most dangerous elements Pitt could encounter against Delaware are the emergence of complacency and snobbery. The Panthers wouldn't be the first team from a Power 5 conference to lose to an FCS (formerly Division I-AA) team.

On opening weekend last year, seven FCS teams defeated their FBS foes, including Eastern Washington's 49-45 upset of then-No. 25 Oregon State and North Dakota State's 24-21 victory against Kansas State, which was the defending Big 12 champion. In years past, Michigan and Virginia Tech were ranked fifth and 13th in the nation when they lost to Appalachian State (2007) and James Madison (2010).

Pitt suffered a less stunning but similar fate two years ago in a 31-17 loss to Youngstown State, Paul Chryst's first game as a head coach. Before the game, Chryst suspended six players for violating team rules.

The convergence of those two events was an indicator that every Pitt player didn't have sufficient respect for the opponent. It was Pitt's only loss to an FCS team in 13 games.

Vinopal, who started against YSU, said the team has matured since then.

“Coach Chryst has done a good job of getting rid of that privileged attitude,” he said. “People are respecting opponents a lot more and taking their jobs a little bit more seriously.

“The culture of the locker room is completely different than a couple years back. There is a definite change, change in attitude, work ethic, preparation, all those things.”

Former Pitt assistant coach Greg Gattuso, now the head coach at Albany, shares conference membership with Delaware in the Colonial Athletic Association. He said Pitt should be careful.

“It's a great league,” said Gattuso, who is in his first year at Albany. “A whole lot closer to competing with MAC schools in many (more) ways than what you would traditionally consider from a I-AA conference.

“Delaware is a good program. It will be a tough opener for (Pitt), for sure.”

Delaware coach Dave Brock said his players are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to play in an NFL stadium. But he does have reservations.

He said he has 50 scholarship players (compared to Pitt's 83). “Thirty of them never played in a game,” he said.

The Big Ten has ruled its schools will stop scheduling FCS opponents beginning in 2016. Brock doesn't totally disagree with that line of thinking.

“I'm not 100 percent sure, year to year, it's great for the program from a competitive standpoint,” said Brock, who was not the coach in 2007 when Delaware and quarterback Joe Flacco defeated Navy, 59-52.

“The injuries are a real factor, and the numbers are a real factor. I think it's a positive thing, but it certainly has some problems.”

That won't prevent Chryst from treading carefully around the Blue Hens.

“We have to understand,” he said, “that every game we play this year will be a game we can win or we can lose.”

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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