Pitt's 34-27 loss to North Carolina on Saturday wasn't decided by one play, but if the focus could be honed in on a single snap, then Ryan Switzer's 61-yard punt return in the fourth quarter was the deciding factor.
After all, that play sapped Pitt's momentum - which had been building throughout the second half - and gave the Tar Heels the final advantage. And the most troubling aspect of the return was that it wasn't the first time Switzer beat Pitt's punt coverage unit on Saturday. With one minute remaining in the second quarter, the UNC receiver took a punt 65 yards to put the Tar Heels ahead 24-3.
As such, to say that Pitt's special teams struggled on Saturday would be a considerable understatement. But fans and media have struggled to find a sideline target for criticism, since there is no special teams coordinator listed in the team's media guide.
So Chryst was asked during his weekly press conference who actually coaches the special teams, since the public has a fair amount of confusion and ambiguity regarding the situation.
"We've got an individual coach in charge of each phase and ultimately I'm responsible for them all. So if they want to blame someone, they can blame me," Chryst said.
One element missing from the special teams on Saturday was redshirt freshman Trenton Coles, who didn't play against North Carolina after leaving the Notre Dame game with concussion symptoms. Coles had been working on the coverage units, where his speed was an asset, and while Chryst understands that good coverage depends on more than one player, he did acknowledge that Coles' absence hurt.
"I don't know if Trenton specifically would have made a difference, but I sure like our units when he's on them," Chryst said.
Both Coles and freshman Titus Howard sat out Saturday's game with injuries, and the impact went beyond special teams. Howard was the third cornerback, meaning he came on the field when Pitt shifted into its nickel defensive sub-package. When he was injured in the third quarter of the Notre Dame, he was replaced by Coles.
But Coles suffered his injury on his first snap with the defense, putting Pitt in a difficult situation heading into the North Carolina game, where the Tar Heels' no-huddle spread offense would likely cause the Panthers to use extra defensive backs. As a result, defensive coordinator Matt House crafted a new nickel, dropping strong safety Jason Hendricks into the nickel-back spot and bringing freshman safety Terrish Webb onto the field as an extra defender.
It wasn't the regular nickel package, but Chryst liked what Pitt did in those situations.
"Titus was giving us a lot of good snaps, and I thought Trenton was really starting to come on, and it's a shame he got hurt on his first snap at nickel and had been doing some really good things on special teams," he said. "To say it doesn't hurt you would minimize (their impact or) say we didn't want those guys on the field. But I think we had a good plan and I don't think it handicapped us or prevented us from doing something."
Chryst said there is no certainty on this week's availability of Howard, Coles or the other players who missed Saturday's game.
"We'll see how it goes," he said about Howard and Coles. "You see them and they say they're getting better. Once you start adding the exercise to it, then you see how that reacts to it."
The same wait-and-see approach is being taken with redshirt senior offensive guard Cory King and redshirt freshman offensive tackle Adam Bisnowaty, although freshman Scott Orndoff is a "long shot" to play in Syracuse this week.
The other major question marks are two players who suffered in-game injuries on Saturday but finished the game: quarterback Tom Savage and receiver Devin Street.
"We'll find out. Tommy and Devin are doing alright right now. We have to be smart."
Changes at tackle?
When Bisnowaty missed the North Carolina game - his second missed game in three weeks - he was replaced at left tackle by freshman Dorian Johnson. But Johnson was replaced by redshirt senior Juantez Hollins in the second half, and the play of the line seemed to improve after the change.
"We thought 'Tez would give us a little better chance with what we were doing at the time," Chryst said. "I thought Dorian did some very good things; in many ways, he played better than (his first start at) Georgia Tech. And yet 'Tez is an older guy, a veteran guy, so we made the switch during the course of the game."
Hollins was suspended for the 2012 season due to a violation of team rules and has been working as a backup this season. Chryst did acknowledge that Hollins had earned more playing time, but he wouldn't commit to a plan for left tackle in the event that Bisnowaty is unavailable again.
"Yeah, I think he did (earn more snaps); I think he did," Chryst said. "And like I said, I think Dorian did some good things, too. I was happy to see, I thought he made some progress from game one to game two."
Saturday's loss to North Carolina was just the latest recurrence of a theme that has defined the Chryst Era at Pitt:
Against the Tar Heels, the Panthers dug a 27-3 hole with miserable play in all three phases before turning around completely to stage a 24-0 comeback and tie the game in the fourth quarter. The ultimate result was a loss, but Pitt's dual-personality performance seemed to mimic much of what the Panthers have done under Chryst.
"It's not like guys are just riding the wave of being into it and out of it, but I think we've got guys taking their turn of making a mistake that we can't rally past," Chryst said.
"The way we're playing, we're living on a fine line."
That may be so and individual mistakes can may doom the team, but the overall trend of inconsistency is one that dogged the 2012 team and has popped up in virtually every game so far in 2013. Chryst used the phrase "consistently inconsistent" to describe last year's performance, and he would certainly say it about this season as well. But he is also the first to point out that the only way to improve consistency is to continue working.
"It always concerns you when you know the things you have to do to give you a chance to win, and you don't do that. But I truly believe it's not a lack of effort, it's not that guys aren't capable of doing something; that'd be bad if we're asking them to do something they're not capable of.
"We don't want to miss tackles; missed tackles do occur. We don't want to miss blocks; that happens. If we had a lot of assignment mistakes, that's more concerning than a guy getting beat. You just keep grinding away at it."
On the rise - again
Freshman running back James Conner tallied 102 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries in the loss to North Carolina, marking his first 100-yard game since rushing for 173 against Duke in late September. Since that game, Conner has dealt with an shoulder injury that limited him to two carries at Virginia Tech and held him out of the Old Dominion game, and a costly fumble ended his day after seven carries at Navy.
But on Saturday, the freshman from Erie ran hard and appeared to execute his assignments and follow blocking as much if not more than he had all season, including the Duke game. And once again, he looked like the best running back on the team.
"He ran really hard and it was fun to see; I thought he gave us some energy," Chryst said. "Every time you take a snap in every game, hopefully you grow. And I think with young guys, you might have a bigger growth opportunity because there's really not a lot to draw on. That's one more thing to draw on, and I think James approaches it the right way so I think he will learn from those."
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