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Pitt's obscure opener still matters

Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - Pitt's James Conner celebrates with Nicholas Grigsby after Grigsby's second-quarter sack of Bowling Green's Matt Johnson in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013, at Ford Field in Detroit.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review</em></div>Pitt's James Conner celebrates with Nicholas Grigsby after Grigsby's second-quarter sack of Bowling Green's Matt Johnson in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013, at Ford Field in Detroit.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media - Pitt running back Chris James goes through drills during practice Friday, Aug. 8, 2014 on Pittsburgh's South Side.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media</em></div>Pitt running back Chris James goes through drills during practice Friday, Aug. 8, 2014 on Pittsburgh's South Side.

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Friday, Aug. 29, 2014, 8:51 p.m.
 

Pitt opens its 2014 season at noon Saturday when some Friday night revelers are just waking up.

If you can't get to Heinz Field in time, however, you still can watch it. Here's hoping your computer pulls in ESPN3. Yes, this is one of those rare games — it's not on traditional TV.

Compare that to last year's opener when Pitt played eventual national champion Florida State on ESPN. Heinz Field was rocking with a sellout crowd of 65,500 for the Panthers' first venture into the ACC. Pitt coach Paul Chryst said his players barely know the difference.

“If you didn't tell them, they'd think they are still in prime time,” he said.

Despite the relative obscurity of the game, there is much at stake beyond what could be perceived nationally as a meaningless game against an FCS team.

Pitt hasn't had a winning regular season since 2010 — the year Dave Wannstedt was fired — and it has been a long, hard road since that time. Losing to Delaware wouldn't immediately set back Chryst's efforts to correct that, but it would feed the belief Pitt is having a difficult time taking that next step up the college football ladder.

Some positive signs surfaced late last season when Pitt beat Notre Dame and won a bowl game. Legitimate stars Tyler Boyd and James Conner led that resurgence, and they are back for at least two more seasons.

Chryst added new faces, including freshman running back Chris James and sophomore cornerback Reggie Mitchell.

Chryst said James will share early-down carries with Conner. Mitchell, a transfer from Wisconsin, will start at cornerback.

Mitchell began the summer as a safety, but when an opening emerged at cornerback, he seized the opportunity. It was his original position upon leaving Shady Side Academy.

“We talked about that when he came out of high school,” said Chryst, who was on the Wisconsin staff that recruited Mitchell. “It wasn't a hard one to wrap your brain around.”

Mitchell has a challenging day ahead of him because of the Blue Hens' veteran passing combination of quarterback Trent Hurley, a three-year starter, and 6-foot-2, 210-pound wide receiver Michael Johnson, who has totaled 104 receptions for 1,495 yards and 13 touchdowns the past two seasons.

Of less consequence is the matter of Chryst's 0-2 record in Pitt openers.

“It's really important for the group,” he said. “It doesn't bother me any. That's not to say you are fine with losing — 1-0 is a better than 0-1, no doubt.”

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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