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September 25, 2013

High expectations despite offensive success

Paul Chryst's reflections on Pitt's offensive performance against Duke weren't quite on the level of calling the most prolific performance at Heinz Field by a college quarterback "average," but the current Pitt head coach wasn't effusive about the Panthers' output in Durham on Saturday.

"We've got stuff we're building on, but good offense finishes that game. Period," Chryst said Monday.

Chryst's point about finishing the 58-55 win over Duke is a relevant one; the Panthers went 3-of-9 on third down in the second half and converted just one of five third downs in the fourth quarter as a 23-point lead in the third quarter dissolved into a slim three-point victory.

But to focus on the end of the game is doing a disservice to the first 40 minutes or so, a stretch that saw Pitt reach the end zone on offense seven times while Tom Savage threw for more yards than any Pitt quarterback in the last 20 years, receivers Devin Street and Tyler Boyd each topped the 100-yard mark and running back James Conner rushed for 173 yards.

Quite simply, the offense put in a performance that stands as a high-water mark in Pitt football.

Just don't ask Chryst if the offense has arrived.

"No," he said bluntly when asked that very question. "We're getting better, but I don't feel like, 'Boy, we've arrived; we're going to be good.' I don't know if I've ever felt that at any place I've been.

"We're showing signs of it at times, and I like the guys; it's not that I'm not happy with them and appreciative of them working and we're building on stuff. But there are a lot of things we can get better at."

Street set a career high with 166 yards and two touchdowns on six receptions, but even he agreed with Chryst about the current state of the offense.

"We're not getting settled in at all," Street said Tuesday. "I think there's always room for improvement. It's just about going out there each week and preparing like we know how to. It was definitely good to see we put up that amount of points on a pretty solid defense; I don't think they were pushovers. I think they were a good defense and we just executed our plan and Coach Chryst did a great job of dialing it up."

After three games, Pitt ranks No. 1 in the ACC in passing offense, No. 2 in the conference in passing yards per completion and No. 4 in scoring offense. Chryst can't be disappointed with that production - although, like any coach, he'd surely like more - but he was still displeased with the offense's inability to possess the ball longer in the later stages of Saturday's game.

The Panthers took a 51-28 lead with three minutes left in the third quarter, and Duke struck immediately with a 75-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 16. But when Pitt got the ball back, the offense gained just one first down and punted before the end of the quarter.

Duke scored on its next drive to make the score 51-41, and Pitt's offense responded with a three-and-out that barely took a minute off the clock. The Panthers' defense came up with a big play when Shane Gordon made an interception, but the offense couldn't take advantage and went three-and-out again.

And when Duke answered a pick-six from Anthony Gonzalez on the next drive with a touchdown to make the score 58-48, Pitt's offense faltered again. This time the offense went three-and-out and muffed a punt to give the Blue Devils a short field, which they naturally converted in short order.

The offense finally made a big play when Savage hit Kevin Weatherspoon on third-and-7 to seal the victory. But the group didn't do enough to take pressure off Pitt's defense, which was struggling to contain Duke's offense, particularly as the Blue Devils scored four second-half touchdowns.

"Offensively, we didn't do anything to get the momentum back, to let it just kind of settle down a little bit," Chryst said. "We didn't play off each other, in the sense that, if one side of the ball is struggling, pick them up. We didn't do that, and therefore it became the type of finish that it was."

So the focus remains on improvement, and it seems that all parties share that goal.

"It's just about going out there each week and proving it, and we're not done yet; we still have a lot to prove," Street said.

"We haven't even seen what the whole offense can do; we've just seen glimpses."





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