Cook: Pitt coach Paul Chryst finally gets a big win

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It took Paul Chryst 22 games to get his first big win at Pitt, but this one was especially sweet. Notre Dame might be a flawed team in many ways, but it's still Notre Dame, it still came in ranked No. 24 in the country and it still was a festive Saturday night at sold-out Heinz Field. Pitt stared down the mystique -- not to mention Irish quarterback Tommy Rees -- and left the building with a 28-21 win.

This was the win Pitt thought it should have had at Notre Dame a year ago. It blew that game, 29-26, in three overtimes, allowing the Irish to continue down a path that took them to the national championship game. There would be no blowing this one.

The win couldn't have come at a better time for Chryst and Pitt, which had lost two games in a row and three of four to fall to 4-4 and all but out of the city's sports consciousness. Too many times over the years, the Panthers found a way to lose this kind of game before a rare big crowd at home. They literally drove away paying and potential customers with lousy performances.

Not on this night.

This time, Pitt found a way to win.

It was enough to maybe make a few fans come back to Heinz Field Saturday afternoon for a game against North Carolina.

"I thought a lot of guys put it out there," Chryst said. "I appreciate that."

Pitt safety Ray Vinopal will get most of the accolades, as he should. His interception of a Rees pass in the Pitt end zone early in the fourth quarter kept the Irish from taking a 24-21 or 28-21 lead. Then, on Notre Dame's next possession, Vinopal intercepted Rees again, returning the ball 40 yards to the Irish 5 to set up the go-ahead 1-yard touchdown by Pitt running back James Conner with 9:36 left.

But this win was about more than just Vinopal. Quarterback Tom Savage was a big difference in the outcome, not throwing an interception in a game when Rees threw two. Savage led Pitt back in the third quarter from 14-7 and 21-14 deficits. His 63-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Devin Street tied the score, 21-21, with 3:29 left in the quarter.

"That's kind of who he is," Chryst said of Savage. "He plays the game. He competes. He works at it. That rubs off."

Maybe the most impressive part of the win was the way Pitt didn't collapse under a little adversity. On the first play after a 2-yard run by Conner tied the score, 14-14, Rees hit wide receiver TJ Jones with an 80-yard touchdown pass for a 21-14 lead.

That would have been it for many Pitt teams.

Vinopal, Savage, Street and the others didn't allow it to happen to this bunch.

"I don't like Notre Dame at all," Pitt tight end J.P. Holtz said before the game.

The other Panthers played all night as if they felt the same way.

"Losing is killing me," Pitt star freshman wide receiver Tyler Boyd had said. "I don't care if I score five touchdowns if we lose. I hate losing."

Boyd had eight catches for 85 yards against Notre Dame.

The other Panthers played all night as if they hate losing, too.

This was big for Chryst, who is trying hard to build the program. Pitt had a lot of recruits at the game. It's hard for kids to get excited about the scene for many games at Heinz Field, but this one was throbbing. Most fans stayed for the finish, which wasn't secured until Pitt linebacker Anthony Gonzalez broke up Rees' final pass from the Pitt 38 with 2:26 left.

"We've got to use that going forward," Chryst said of the win and crowd, which he said "fueled" the Pitt players. "We'll save all of the 'What's it mean?' until we do something with it."

If nothing else, the win will buy Chryst a little time. He said he shrugs off the criticism, which had been growing. "What people say outside isn't as important as what's going on inside." But Chryst had to know it was out there. More and more callers to the talk shows had been screaming to bring back Dave Wannstedt as coach. That's ridiculous. Pitt badly underachieved under Wannstedt, who had six years to get things right.

Chryst is just 1¾ seasons in.

He deserves at least four seasons, if not five.

This win should accelerate Chryst's progress.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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