Panthers leave Big East with a thud as ACC looms

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PITTSBURGH – Maybe the best news about Paul Chryst’s first season at Pitt is that there will be a second.


For the Panthers, that’s progress.


The unassuming Chryst brought a sense of calm to a program that saw nothing but chaos in the 13 months before he arrived, shuffling through coaches and one very high-profile conference move.


The messy result was an uneven 6-7 season in which failed to find any momentum, good or bad. The team upset Virginia Tech and came closer than anybody else to beating Notre Dame, but also lost to Youngstown State. The guys that whipped Rutgers and South Florida to rally for a bowl berth also got crushed 38-17 by Mississippi in the BBVA Compass Bowl last weekend.


Still, there is a sense of optimism that the drama that’s surrounded Pitt for the last two years is finally over.


“I know (the bowl game) could have really swung things for the team going forward,” senior wide receiver Mike Shanahan said. “But I know that they’re going to get it right.”


The Panthers might already be on their way.


Pitt’s biggest victory this year probably came off the field when Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said he wasn’t going to poach Chryst – a Madison, Wis., native and longtime Badgers assistant – after just one season with the Panthers.


The announcement allowed Pitt to exhale and enabled Chryst to take another step forward in building a level of trust that should translate on the recruiting trail and in the locker room.


Not that the coach wants to talk about it. There’s very little self-promotion in Chryst. He was downright embarrassed when a cameraman cut to him during a recent Pitt basketball game a few days after it became clear he was sticking around.


The student section at the Petersen Events Center rose and gave the coach a standing ovation, one Chryst appreciated but also bemoaned because, after a 6-6 regular season, he didn’t think he exactly deserved it.


He’ll get a chance to earn them for more than mere loyalty next fall when Pitt begins play in the ACC, though the rebuilding project may take a bit longer than expected.


Pitt will lose almost the entire starting offensive line, one that opened up holes for running backs Ray Graham and Rushel Shell, who combined for 1,683 yards and 15 touchdowns. Graham graduates, as does quarterback Tino Sunseri and Shanahan.


Shell appears ready to become the feature back, but it’s a muddled guess as to who will replace the enigmatic Sunseri. The oft-criticized quarterback had easily the best season of his career, completing more than 65 percent of his passes for 3,288 yards and 21 touchdowns against just three interceptions. He exits the program as one of the most prolific passers in school history, and leaves behind a wide-open race in search of his successor.


Chryst will say only that he will use the next eight months to sort out the quarterback situation. The trio of Chad Voytik, Trey Anderson and Tom Savage will get the first crack at it, though just as important as finding a quarterback will be the task of finding playmakers at receiver.


Junior Devin Street had a breakout season with 73 receptions for 975 yards and five touchdowns but the next three players on the receptions list — Shanahan, Cam Saddler and Graham — are gone.


There aren’t quite as many questions on defense if All-Big East defensive lineman Aaron Donald sticks around for his senior season. Donald was dominant at times for a unit that struggled to stay healthy or play with consistency.


Playing for the same defensive coordinator for consecutive seasons should help, as will the maturity that comes from getting brief tastes of success. Pitt often played to the level of its opponent. Four of the Panthers’ losses came by 10 points or less — including a 29-26 triple-overtime defeat at Notre Dame in early November — and Chryst believes those lessons will pay off down the road.


So will the example set by a senior class that endured four different head coaches (six if you count coaches who wore the “interim” tag) in a little more than two years.


“I feel fortunate because a lot of these (seniors) and my path crossed,” Chryst said. “That’s something that no one can take away from us - the moments that people see aren’t really the ones that matter most. You appreciate all these guys and appreciate guys that play this game ... That’s what makes coaching fun.”


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Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP


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