At long last, the wait is over for Pitt's ACC introduction
September 2, 2013 8:00 AM
Pitt faces the same kind of odds today as it did Sept. 15, 2012, when it played then-No. 13 Virginia Tech. The Panthers won in an upset, 35-17, and Jason Hendricks celebrated with fans that day at Heinz Field.
By Sam Werner Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When this game was announced on Feb. 25, the countdown clock in Pitt's locker room read 190 days to kickoff.
Slowly, those days, hours, minutes and seconds have dwindled away the past six months.
On Memorial Day, the clock ticked under 100 days. On July 4, it read 61 days.
At 8 p.m. Sunday night, the number under "Days" changed from one to zero.
Finished last year 6-7 with a loss to Mississippi in the BBVA Compass Bowl. ... Playing first game in the Atlantic Coast Conference after 21 years in the Big East. ... Is 5-3 against Florida State, with the previous meeting a 17-16 Panthers victory in 1983 at Pitt Stadium. ... Redshirt senior Tom Savage will start at quarterback, the first player to be under center for Pitt other than Tino Sunseri since the 2009 Meineke Car Care Bowl, started by Bill Stull. ... Eight starters return for a defense that finished 17th in Division I-A in total defense. ... Will face highest-ranked opening-game opponent since defeating No. 5 North Carolina in 1982.
Defending ACC and Orange Bowl champion. ... Defeated Northern Illinois, 31-10, to claim its fourth Orange Bowl title. ... Has a 17-10 record in road openers, and has not opened a season on the road since 2007, a 24-18 loss to Clemson. ... Redshirt freshman Jameis Winston will make his first career start at quarterback. ... Scored on 65 of 71 red zone trips last year, a 92 percent conversion rate that was eighth best in Division I-A. ... Ranked No. 1 in Division I-A last season in pass defense (161.9 yards per game) and pass efficiency defense (95.4 opponent rating). ... Defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri was an All-American linebacker at Pitt from 1979-82 and his son, Tino, played quarterback from 2010-12.
Florida State is 23-1 when rushing for more than 200 yards. Pitt allowed four opponents to rush for more than 200 yards last year (all losses) and averaged 136.4 rushing yards against on the season.
After more than six months of anticipation, the day is finally here.
Pitt will kick off its inaugural Atlantic Coast Conference season tonight against defending league champion Florida State. With a national broadcast on ESPN and no other college games on television, all eyes will be on the Panthers and Seminoles as they begin their 2013 seasons.
Pitt coach Paul Chryst is not one to get bogged down in big-picture things such as national perception or how "big" each game is, but even he recognizes that this one is special.
"There is so much real motivation for every guy on this team to play well," Chryst said. "There's a lot of different good reasons guys play the game. That's great, and that's what makes this sport good."
Chryst might not buy into it as much, but receiver Devin Street admitted that Pitt's decided underdog status tonight has served as motivation inside the locker room.
Street pointed to games last year when Pitt upset No. 13 Virginia Tech and took No. 3 Notre Dame to triple overtime.
"Virginia Tech, no one gave us a chance," Street said. "Notre Dame, even though we didn't come out on top, we proved we can keep up with those teams. That's what we're doing now."
Still, there's a reason a Pitt victory would be considered an upset. Florida State finished last year 12-2 and ranked No. 10 in The Associated Press poll. The Seminoles won the ACC with a victory against Georgia Tech in the conference championship and beat Northern Illinois, 31-10, in the Orange Bowl.
The Seminoles are, however, breaking in a new quarterback and eight new starters on defense.
"They're defending ACC champions, but watching the film, I don't think they're the same team as last year," Street said. "They're definitely a great team, don't get me wrong on that."
Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston has all the physical tools to be a star, but will make his college debut as a redshirt freshman. To ease his transition, Florida State likely will rely on the running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr., who combined for 1,295 yards and 19 touchdowns last season.
"The most demoralizing thing in football is when they run the football on you," Pitt defensive coordinator Matt House said. "I don't care if you're playing Purdue and Drew Brees when he used to throw it 50 times a game. The first thing you'd better do is stop the run or it demoralizes a defense. That's regardless of who the quarterback is."
If Pitt can limit Florida State's production on the ground and force Winston to throw, the Panthers defense has shown the ability to create turnovers. Safety Jason Hendricks led the Big East last year with six interceptions.
Pitt also will break in a new quarterback, though senior Tom Savage has been around a while. Savage will play his first game after two years off as he transferred from Rutgers to Arizona and, finally, to Pitt.
He said he started to get some pregame jitters earlier this week, but calmed down after talking with Chryst and quarterbacks coach Brooks Bollinger.
"I think he was pressing a little bit, but just sitting down with coach Bollinger and coach Chryst a couple of days ago, you see a big difference," Street said. "He's trusting it more, he's not double-clutching, he's letting those deep balls go."
Ultimately, nothing can truly prepare Savage and the other Panthers for the atmosphere or competition they're likely to experience tonight. Which is why, as Chryst always preaches, the game will hinge on their preparation and execution of details rather than hype and emotion.
"The things we've got to focus on are the things we can control, and we've got to start this season and play against obviously a very good opponent," Chryst said. "All that [external] stuff, that doesn't carry you past the second or third play. It's all about the game. Good football will win."