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December 27, 2013

Pitt gets a good win for the program

In the run-up to last night's Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl in Detroit, it didn't take too much extended logic to term the event a "lose-lose" for Pitt.

After all, if the Panthers lost, then the narrative was obvious: another 6-7 season capped by another loss to a "lower" opponent and more questions about the direction of the program. And if Pitt won, then the tone will likely turn to one of dismissing Pitt's opponent altogether since Bowling Green hails from the Mid-American Conference, regardless of the Falcons' 10-win record and impressive dispatching of Northern Illinois in the MAC championship game.

A win would simply be what Pitt was supposed to do and a loss would be what Pitt often does, and through that prism, there didn't seem to be many "perception wins" available to the Panthers, even if they ended up on the winning end of the Ford Field scoreboard.

But that perspective and those narratives were missing one significant potential outcome of beating Bowling Green, an outcome that came to pass. Pitt's 30-27 win over the Falcons gave the Panthers a 7-6 record on the 2013 season. That's nothing to write home about, but when a team hasn't won more games than it has lost in each of the last three years, maybe the simple accomplishment of seven wins in 13 games merits acknowledgement.

Because in the aftermath of Pitt's victory, the 7-6 record is not just a .538 winning percentage; it's a tangible sign of progress. Or, at the very least, a legitimate mark of the program not taking a step back.

And it has been quite some time since the program hasn't taken a step back. From 2010's failure to build on 2009's success, 2011's failure to actualize its self-manufactured hype, or 2012's failure to overcome a slew of inherited issues, Pitt's program has seemed to habitually generate a perception of stepping back on an annual basis.

To improve the record, to win seven games for the first time since 2010, would be a step forward of some sort. Perhaps it wouldn't be a giant leap, but the very avoidance of a step back - as another 6-7 season would seem to have been - would be some kind of positive move, given the sheer preponderance of steps back in recent years.

And Thursday night had some real opportunities for a step back. Pitt entered the evening with just six offensive linemen, since Matt Rotheram was not on the trip due to personal reasons, leaving Dorian Johnson to start at right guard. And the Panthers only had three defensive ends, since Bryan Murphy also did not go to Detroit due to his own separate personal reasons. The result of the depth issue along the defensive front was that freshman running back James Conner worked in some third-down situations at end for the first time all season.

And if that wasn't enough, the Panthers lost starting quarterback Tom Savage to an injury at the end of the second quarter.

So Pitt and its six offensive linemen and its three defensive ends and its running back working as a part-time end went into the locker room at halftime with a banged-up quarterback and a one-touchdown lead.

When the Panthers came out of the locker room after halftime, they soon found that they had neither the quarterback nor the lead, as Savage was ruled out for the rest of the game and Bowling Green returned the half-opening kickoff 94 yards for a game-tying score.

But Pitt and its six offensive linemen and its three defensive ends and its running back working as a part-time end and its backup quarterback didn't wilt under the pressure of that tied score, nor the field goal that gave the Falcons a 20-17 lead a few minutes later. Instead, they answered, first with a 65-yard drive for a game-tying field goal and then with a six-play/98-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter to go ahead again.

Bowling Green scored to tie the score at 27-all, giving Pitt possession at its own 28 with 4:42 on the clock. From there, the backup quarterback and the running back working as a part-time end took over. James Conner rushed for 32 yards on five carries and Chad Voytik ran once for 19 yards, and after the drive stalled at the Bowling Green 21 with 1:22 remaining, Chris Blewitt connected on a 39-yard game-winning kick.

And rather than falter when the opponent answered every blow, rather than suffer another 6-7 season, rather than cap another middling year with an uninspired postseason performance, rather than take a step back, the Panthers did something it hadn't done in three years:

They won.

They won in the postseason. They won more games than they lost.

Is Thursday night's win going to carry Pitt to a top-25 recruiting class? Probably not. Does it guarantee anything about the 2014 season? No, not really (although the fact that all 30 of the team's points came from freshmen and redshirt freshmen certainly bodes well for the future).

But the win over Bowling Green is a positive step in Paul Chryst's efforts to move Pitt forward. It may not lead directly to a top recruiting class, but as another step forward - and most definitely not a step backwards - it stands as progress.

Betting lines aside (Pitt was a seven-point underdog at kickoff), the Panthers did what they were supposed to do Thursday night. If they can do that with consistency in the coming seasons, then Chryst just might be onto something.




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