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November 12, 2013

For one night, Vinopal answers critics

Ray Vinopal doesn't hear the criticism.

Every athlete will take his share of the blame, but after deleting most of his social media accounts, the redshirt junior safety isn't hearing it from the outside. He has the support of his coaches and teammates, and that's all that matters.

Vinopal recorded his best performance of the season and possibly his career in Pitt's 28-21 win over Notre Dame Saturday night, making seven tackles with a half tackle for loss, two interceptions and a forced fumble. His second interception set up James Conner's game-winning one-yard touchdown run.

Though he has taken the brunt of criticism this season, Vinopal understands that's part of the game, and he's just looking to improve each week.

"Every athlete's been there," he said. "Some weeks they love you, some weeks they hate you. It's understandable. That's how you are as a fan. You like the team so much, you want things to go your way. But I can't concern myself with that side of it."

Regardless of criticism from the outside, Vinopal knows he has support on the inside. His coaches and teammates have never wavered in backing the starting safety.

Want proof? Here's what they said after the game:

Quarterback Tom Savage: "There's no one out there that deserves that more than Ray. You're not going to meet a kid that works as hard as him. He put us in this game and gave us that opportunity. The whole defense did, but some of the plays he made were huge for us, and he deserves it."

Receiver Devin Street: "I'm so proud of Ray because he gets a lot of criticism. He's gotten a lot of criticism throughout the season, and that guy perseveres through adversity. That's what this team's about, and I couldn't be more proud of him. He's a great guy off the field and works his tale off."

Defensive tackle Aaron Donald: "I told him big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games, and he did that out there for us. I thanked him and gave him a hug and was really excited for him."

Safety Jason Hendricks: "He played a great game, just a great game. He kept his head up because he gave up a pass, but he just kept playing and erased it from his memory and made some big plays for us."

That's true. Vinopal did give up a few plays. He bit on a play-action, which allowed tight end Ben Koyack to get behind him for a pass down to the half-yard line. Then, he bit on a play-action fake again, coming up to help the run as receiver T.J. Jones pulled a double move to beat K'Waun Williams for an 80-yard score.

Even on Vinopal's first turnover - forcing a fumble on another Jones catch - the Notre Dame receiver had gained 34 yards before being stripped. However, he was able to keep playing, hook Jones' arm and knock the ball loose for Lafayette Pitts to recover.

"As soon as it's over, it's gone," Vinopal said. "A big part of it is my teammates are all very confident in me. No one's pointing fingers…knowing that you have the support of the guys around you, it's big. It really helps with that short-term memory. You ask any athlete, and that's how it's got to be. You forget it, then move on."

The redshirt junior safety stopped another scoring threat in the fourth quarter. On second-and-goal from the 4-yard line, Tommy Rees tried to force a ball into the back of the end zone, but Vinopal made a leaping catch to end the threat.

On Rees' next pass attempt, Vinopal played centerfield perfectly, stepping up to make a second pick. He returned it 40 yards to the Notre Dame 5-yard line, and even though he wasn't able to score, he was happy to set up the offense.

"I had hoped (to score on the second interception)," he said. "Towards the end there, I'm not the biggest guy, so you cut back to the middle of the field, you might get something you don't want. I just focused on keeping the ball tight and letting the offense cap it off."

For a player who has taken a lot of criticism for Pitt's defensive struggles, this had to be satisfying for Vinopal. He wouldn't admit to it - focusing on the team's win rather than his individual performance - but the redshirt junior safety is only focused on getting better, not on listening to people from the outside.

"I've stayed off of social media," he said. "I've deleted most of my accounts, so I don't really have any idea what anyone's saying, and that's how I like it. The coaches put me on the field. They're my critics, and I'm my critic. I listen to what they say, and they're corrections for me.

"That's how I get better. I don't read anything on the Internet, or listen to whoever thinks this or that. My coaches will get me squared away. If they tell me I did something wrong, I'll learn from that. I'm not going to go looking for it elsewhere."





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