Football: Vinopal improves after adjustment

Football: Vinopal improves after adjustment

By Nate Barnes / Sports Editor

Pitt head coach Paul Chryst doesn’t read into weekly comparisons. Chryst does this mainly because there are no constants in football, especially when no team plays another twice in a season. 

The only constant as Chryst sees it is the way his own team prepares week in and week out. So after Pitt’s 35-24 victory Saturday over Old Dominion, Chryst didn’t dig into the improvements his team made from its loss against No. 24 Virginia Tech the week before. 

“I don’t think you can compare week to week,” Chryst said. “That’s how the season has been. Each team is different and their focus and attack is different.”

While Chryst won’t make comparisons based on improvements or differences, others — such as fans, writers and broadcasters — tend to do so on their own. 

In making these comparisons, people often focus on the performance of certain players. And in the case of Pitt football this year, that certain player has often been redshirt senior free safety Ray Vinopal. 

Vinopal found himself under intense scrutiny early this season, following Pitt’s Week 1 loss to Florida State and again after the Panthers’ 58-55 victory against Duke. Between the two games, Pitt allowed 696 passing yards and the blame fell primarily on Vinopal’s shoulders.

“That’s just how it goes with the fans and stuff,” Vinopal said. “I understand it.” 

But instead of receiving blame, Vinopal earned praise for his performance Saturday. The safety recorded a team-high seven tackles, broke up one pass and intercepted another. 

Vinopal’s plays in the fourth quarter — an interception and a pass breakup — helped seal Pitt’s victory, leaving the Panthers 4-2 halfway through their 2013 campaign. 

First, Vinopal broke up a pass from Old Dominion quarterback Taylor Heinicke that was intended for Blair Roberts on fourth down at Pitt’s 45-yard line. The Panthers held a 35-24 lead at the time, and the Monarchs were putting together a drive in response to Tom Savage’s rushing touchdown. 

Roberts ran a dig route past the first-down marker, and Vinopal was ready for it. 

“Our coaches have been putting us in good positions all week,” Vinopal said. Later, Vinopal made the play that effectively ended the Monarchs’ hopes of mounting a comeback. Old Dominion started with the ball at its own 18 and had 3:20 left in the game. The team reached its own 41-yard line after a pair of completions by Heinicke. 

On the next play, Heinicke was flushed from the pocket and threw a pass downfield. Vinopal broke from his spot and picked the pass off with 2:35 remaining to ensure Pitt’s win. 

“The quarterback extended the play. I was in the post, so I was just feeling him out,” Vinopal said. “When I thought I had a bead on where I thought he was going with it, I just tried to get there.”

Vinopal got there and posted his first interception of the season.

“I saw it coming, but sometimes you’re wrong,” Vinopal said. “You’ve got to be really careful coming out of the post, luckily I had a good bead on it.”

Vinopal is now third on the team in terms of tackles with 38 this season, and he is tied for the team lead with three pass breakups. His partner downfield, strong safety Jason Hendricks, acknowledged the importance of Vinopal’s performance. 

“It was a clutch play,” Hendricks said. “He made a big play today.”

Hendricks watched Vinopal lose his starting job last season to Jarred Holley after just one game, and again saw Vinopal struggle through the early part of the season. Hendricks, for one, has liked Vinopal’s response. 

“A lot of people have been talking down on him,” Hendricks said. “Of course he hears it, but he keeps working hard, getting better. I’m proud.”