Football: Chryst credits crowd, O-line after upset win, Panthers size up UNC


By Nate Barnes / Sports Editor

Fresh off the signature win of Paul Chryst’s young tenure as Pitt’s head coach, the Panthers now begin preparation for Saturday’s game against North Carolina at Heinz Field. The Panthers are one win away from bowl eligibility after their 28-21 upset of No. 23 Notre Dame.

Chryst said the win last Saturday was largely a byproduct of consistent play all around the field.

“I thought we did some good things up front,” Chryst said. “It wasn’t all of a sudden this great transformation. We just made some plays — for different reasons the O-line was a big part of it.”

As a result of the offensive line’s play, quarterback Tom Savage threw for 243 yards and two touchdowns and freshman running backJames Conner was able to convert two goal-line carries into touchdowns.

“We were able to get some run-game going,” Chryst said. “Tommy [Savage] did a good job … of getting the ball out of his hands, he found some checkdowns, especially early. I think there’s a lot of reasons why we were able to be successful offensively.”

Ryan Schlieper, who started at left guard the past few weeks because of an injury to Cory King, said that the line has simply improved with time. That was embodied in this weekend’s results: Savage endured just one sack Saturday, in stark contrast to contests against Virginia and Virginia Tech.

“I don’t know if you can say better, but definitely more experienced,” Schlieper said. “Every game you get more and more experience and more knowledge. You understand the game better.”

Beyond the statistical performance, Chryst also credited Saturday’s sellout crowd of 65,500 for spurring the Panthers’ spirits.

“The atmosphere was one heck of an atmosphere,” Chryst said. “I know our kids got a lot of energy from it.”

Moving forward, Pitt (5-4, 2-3 ACC) has a chance to catch the Tar Heels (4-5, 3-3 ACC) in the Coastal Division standings. North Carolina is ahead of Pitt by a half-game entering this week’s matchup.

“Just watching North Carolina, I see an extremely talented team,” Chryst said. “They’re athletic and on a bit of a roll.”

Chryst is right.

After a 1-5 start, the Tar Heels have won three games in a row. Their latest triumph came Saturday against Virginia, when North Carolina soundly defeated the Cavaliers, 45-14. But the Tar Heels are also missing starting quarterback Bryn Renner, who is sidelined for the rest of the season with a separated shoulder.

“They’ve still got a big offensive line. Their tight end is a heck of a player,” Chryst said. “They have a number of skilled receivers that, no matter who’s playing quarterback, they’re dangerous.”

The tight end Chryst refers to is Eric Ebron, whose name circulated as a preseason All-American at the position. The junior has recorded 46 receptions for 690 yards and three scores this season.

Ebron is ranked as the best tight end in the 2014 NFL Draft class by draft scouts, and may merit a first-round selection in April.

Surrounding Ebron is Quinshad Davis, who leads the team with eight touchdown receptions, and Bug Howard, who has scored four times.

Out of the backfield, Chryst still sees quarterback Marquise Williams as a threat both through the air and on the ground. Against Virginia, Williams threw for 185 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for another 46 yards and a score.

“I’ve just been starting to watch [tape], but he’s athletic, I think he’s got a live arm,” Chryst said. “Obviously, they trust him quite a bit, and I think he’s got good weapons around him. I think he’s dangerous.”

Ray Vinopal, named the ACC Defensive Player of the Week for his two-interception performance against Notre Dame, is concerned only about preparing himself and the rest of his team, regardless of what position Williams or any player holds on the depth chart.

“We’re just worrying about ourselves,” Vinopal said. “We’re going to get into game prep today, but all these teams have great athletes. Whether it’s first string or third string, they have capable players.”

As for Pitt’s offensive line, the challenges North Carolina poses are of a different breed than those posed last week by behemoth All-American tackle Louis Williams and the rest of Notre Dame’s defensive line.

“I haven’t seen any tape yet on North Carolina,” Schlieper said. “I talked to coach [Jim] Hueber and he said they’re a faster team.”

Pitt enters the game with five wins, and can nearly taste the fruits that bowl eligibility will yield with the team’s sixth win.

“You play for the postseason whenever you’re in the season,” Vinopal said. “The goal is to make a bowl and play in the best bowl you can.”

After nine games, Pitt is predicted to visit the Hyundai Sun Bowl, according to ESPN’s ACC blog.

“Right now, we have three games left,” Schlieper said. “If we can get four, that’s a whole different world.”