One week, the Pitt football team stands tall on college football's most storied field with historic effort and a near-upset of one of the top teams in the nation. The next week, the Panthers put in a lackluster effort while making an anemic offense look dynamic in the first half of a game that should have been a smooth Pitt victory.
How could one team go from the peak of heart and effort to a virtual no-show in the span of six days, as Pitt did between its triple-overtime loss at Notre Dame two weeks ago and its unimpressive loss at Connecticut this past Friday?
Simply put, Pitt wasn't ready to play when the Panthers ran onto Rentschler Field Friday night, and while they outscored the Huskies 17-0 after halftime, the first-half hole was too deep to dig out of.
"That's on me for not having them ready," Pitt head coach Paul Chryst said Monday. "We only have 12 games on the schedule, and you have to know they're a gift to be able to play them.
"We have to create a culture where guys are appreciative and enjoy the opportunity to play each game. That starts with me helping them get there."
Talk of creating a culture seems to come from more than just one game. At times, these Panthers have seemed to lack dedication, and Chryst has used some version of the phrase "appreciation of the game" quite frequently, dating back to spring practice. He wants players who have that appreciation, players for whom the game is important. For players like those, effort isn't lacking when the team faces an opponent.
For Pitt in 2012, it seems to have been lacking on several occasions, beginning with the season opener against Youngstown State and continuing through the loss to Connecticut, which dropped the Panthers to 4-6 overall and 1-4 in the Big East.
"You have to be ready, and to take the game for granted or to not be excited to play, we have to change that thinking," he said.
But how does that change happen? Short of roster turnover, which can take several years to fully implement, there are few quick solutions. But that doesn't mean Chryst hasn't brought up the topic with the players.
"I think you have to hit stuff dead-on," he said. "You have to address that and try to move forward with it and hold guys accountable and coaches accountable. I think how you address it is, you have to hit it square on the face and then move on."
After the team returned to Pittsburgh from Connecticut this weekend, Chryst addressed the effort directly with the team in what has been described as a marked departure from his usual laid-back demeanor. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Todd Thomas said after the Connecticut game that Chryst "tested our manhood" at halftime, and various sources have indicated that he continued in that vein when addressing the team in Pittsburgh.
Whether Chryst's "road to Damascus" moment with the team will bear fruits this season remains to be seen. The journey of coaching changes and disappointing losses has taken its toll, and manufacturing another effort like Pitt put forth against Notre Dame or Virginia Tech may be out of reach (although it is certainly not unattainable). Either way, Chryst and his staff know that they have to do everything they can to try to generate a stronger performance in the final two games of the regular season.
"We just have to make sure that they understand that that's not how you play the game and we have to do a better job of coaching them."
For Chryst, the key to accomplishing that is something that he has preached since taking the Pitt job last December: consistency. The head coach acknowledges that the team has gotten great effort from various players at various times this season, but it needs to come from more players at more times.
"I think what you want to be all about is consistency. We've got to be consistent as coaches and as players. And that's not to say that things don't happen; I don't have a problem if a player drops the ball, as long as they're working. But I think it's consistency in your approach and consistency in how you work.
"It's our job to help players be consistent and to make plays when they can. To me, there's no sense in dwelling on those things, and yet you have to learn from them. That's why we coach, and players, if they're approaching it the right way and going to work, that's a process that you have to enjoy."
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