PITTSBURGH – Head coach Paul Chryst expected the Pitt Panthers to feel pretty good following Saturday’s 28-21 upset of Notre Dame.
What pleased him the most, however, was what he didn’t see when he walked into the team’s practice facility Sunday morning.
“It wasn’t like guys were all of a sudden skipping into the building and whistling ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,’” Chryst said with a laugh.
Sorry, but even after the most significant win of Chryst’s short two-year tenure, the Panthers (5-4, 2-3 ACC) hardly feel as if they’ve arrived. Sure, beating the Fighting Irish on national television at home with dozens of recruits in attendance to move a game closer to bowl eligibility is nice. The season, however, is far from over.
“I know I’ve only got three more games left in my college career at this point,” senior offensive lineman Ryan Schlieper said. “I know I want that extra game. I know a lot of other guys do too.”
The Panthers need to win at least one of their final three to make it to a sixth straight bowl game. The prospects look considerably brighter after they found a way to rally by the Irish.
The ending was a marked departure for Pitt. The Panthers have made a habit in recent seasons of letting winnable, notable games slip away, including a triple-overtime loss to Notre Dame in 2012.
Pitt came in 1-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less under Chryst, yet this time there was a decidedly different vibe on the sideline following defensive back Ray Vinopal’s 40-yard interception return in the fourth quarter that gave the Panthers the ball deep in Irish territory with a chance to go in front.
“We all kind of looked at each other on the sideline and said, ‘This is the time,’” quarterback Tom Savage said. “It’s time to go out there and answer because I think we were due.”
Tailback James Conner, whose playing time has been limited recently due to a shoulder injury, bulled over for his second touchdown of the game a minute later and Pitt’s quickly improving defense made it stand up.
Vinopal, who deactivated his Twitter account earlier this season after a poor performance against Duke, had a hand in all three of Pitt’s takeaways. He forced TJ Jones’ fumble deep in Panther territory to end a Notre Dame scoring threat in the second quarter. He jumped in front of a Tommy Rees pass in the end zone early in the fourth quarter to stymie another Irish drive before his second pick put the Panthers in position to win.
Chryst praised Vinopal’s mental toughness and believes Vinopal’s resilience mirrors the growth of a team that still believes it can be a factor in the ACC Coastal Division.
“I think that we all look around and see how people respond and maybe those same people will look at how he responds after having that game last week,” Chryst said. “I’m confident he’ll be the same guy he’s been every Monday this season. I think all of those things factor in and are important: how you act, how you handle adversity, how you handle success. He’s one of those guys that you want the young guys to emulate.”
Vinopal insists he’s just trying to help the Panthers improve and credited Chryst for changing the culture in a locker room that has gone through several coaching changes. He loves that Chryst is “connected” to the program and not separated by the coaching staff. He appreciates the way Chryst expects his team to win every week regardless of the opponent and doesn’t change no matter how good – or how bad – it gets.
The Panthers host surging North Carolina (4-5, 3-3) Saturday. If they trip up, all the momentum they built against the Irish will vanish. It wouldn’t be the first time. Pitt lost its first two games under Chryst in 2012 before rocking then 13th-ranked Virginia Tech at home. The hangover lingered and the Panthers didn’t beat an FBS program for six weeks.
Those memories remain fresh. As great as Saturday night was, it was just one night.
“It feels good to win,” Chryst said. “What we choose to do with it going forward, that’s up to us.”