Gorman: Vinopal uses short-term memory for an unforgettable game
Ray Vinopal has learned to turn a deaf ear to the criticism directed toward him, friendly fire from Pitt football fans who viewed the junior free safety as the weak link to a struggling secondary.
“As soon as it's over, it's gone,” Vinopal said. “A big part of it is my teammates are all very confident in me. No one is pointing fingers. Everyone is saying, ‘It's over. We need you.' Knowing you have the support of the guys is really big and really helps with that short-term memory. You ask any athlete, you forget it and move on.”
Vinopal turned in a performance that went from forgetful to unforgettable Saturday night in a 28-21 victory over No. 24 Notre Dame before a standing-room-only crowd at Heinz Field and a national television audience. He tied for the team-high with seven tackles, forced a fumble and intercepted two Tommy Rees passes.
“It was awesome, looking up and seeing all of those people in prime time,” Vinopal said. “You only go that way once. Those kind of opportunities, you hold them close.”
Vinopal will hold them with a vise grip, the way he held the football on those interceptions that proved to be the game's most pivotal plays. What made them so special for Vinopal was that his heroics came shortly after he was scorched.
This was just his luck: For every great play he made, his next would make him the goat. In the second quarter, Vinopal stripped Notre Dame's T.J. Jones, forcing a fumble recovered by Lafayette Pitts at the Panthers' 6.
Then Vinopal allowed a 38-yard pass to Notre Dame tight end Ben Koyack just feet from the goal line, a play on which Vinopal also was called for pass interference. Three plays later, the Fighting Irish scored to take a 14-7 lead with 6:34 left in the first half.
“You learn from it and make sure it doesn't happen again,” Vinopal said. “After that, it was over. It's done. That play is not going to help us win the game anymore, so you let go of it.”
So Vinopal relied on his short-term memory in the second half.
The first pick came in the Panthers' end zone, preventing a touchdown that would have given the Irish an early fourth-quarter lead. Vinopal credited middle linebacker Shane Gordon for taking away the middle throw. That forced Rees to put some air under the ball in his pass intended for Chris Brown, and Vinopal stepped in to steal it.
“There's no one out there that deserves that more than Ray,” Pitt quarterback Tom Savage said. “You're not going to meet a kid that's going to work as hard as him. He put us in this game and gave us an opportunity to win. Our whole defense did, but some of the plays he made were huge.”
None was bigger than Vinopal's second interception, with the game tied at 21-21 early in the fourth quarter. Whether Rees overthrew Koyack or underthrew DaVaris Daniels, only Notre Dame knows. Either way, Vinopal picked it off at the Irish 45 and weaved his way along the home sideline to score what appeared to be the go-ahead touchdown.
Alas, Vinopal stepped out of bounds at the 5. James Conner scored the winning touchdown three plays later. It was rewarding not only for Vinopal but also for the teammates who were with him amid the lowest moments and enjoyed watching him turn the jeers into cheers.
“He just keeps his head up. He keeps everything level-headed,” senior strong safety Jason Hendricks said. “He hears it but doesn't pay any attention to it. It doesn't affect his game. He works hard every day and gets better every week.”
Not to mention more tone deaf.
Vinopal said he has deleted most of his social media accounts, tuning out the taunts after responding to them earlier this season. He likes it better this way, not knowing what anyone is saying other than the coaches who are trying to help him correct mistakes.
“Every athlete's been there: Some weeks they love you. Some weeks they hate you,” Vinopal said. “It's understandable. That's how you are as a fan: You like the team so much you want things to go your way. But I can't concern myself with that side of it.”
So he turned on the short-term memory and silenced the critics in his own way, by playing the best game of his career. That it came against Notre Dame before a standing-room-only crowd and national television audience only made it more memorable.
“I'd be lying if I said it didn't, especially an 8 o'clock ABC game,” Vinopal said. “It was nice to go out there and show what I can do and help the team get the win.”
That's something Ray Vinopal will never forget.