It seems like each week, the number of players taking the field for warm-ups in sweatpants and jackets, rather than football pads, seems to be growing.
Cornerbacks Trenton Coles and Titus Howard were the latest to join that group this week, as Pitt has suffered through a rash of injuries over the past few weeks, costing them a number of starters and key contributors.
In addition to the two cornerbacks, starting left guard Cory King (hamstring) and left tackle Adam Bisnowaty (back) also missed a 34-27 loss Saturday against North Carolina. Backup tight end Scott Orndoff has missed the past two games and appeared on the field for warm-ups Saturday with a sizable brace on his left leg. Defensive end Ejuan Price has missed the past four games with a back injury.
Orndoff and Price appear to have the most serious ailments. Coach Paul Chryst wouldn’t rule either one out for the rest of the season, but said both were in “the window” where they could either return or not.
Chryst said Monday he wasn’t sure if there was a common theme among the injured players.
“You’re concerned about them and you don’t know what drove those,” he said. “They could’ve just happened. You want to know if it’s something we’re doing here and you go through it and try to answer it. “
To make matters worse Saturday, quarterback Tom Savage left with a knee injury right before halftime, and receiver Devin Street missed time with an ankle injury in the second half. Both returned later in the game, but Chryst said both are in “wait-and-see” mode this week.
“Both Tommy and Devin are doing all right right now,” Chryst said. “We’ve got to be smart today.”
The absence of Coles and Howard also altered the way Chryst and defensive coordinator Matt House chose to defend North Carolina’s spread offense. Jahmahl Pardner played some snaps as the nickelback, but they also used a formation that moved safety Jason Hendricks in that role and put reserve safety Terrish Webb in Hendricks’ spot.
Coles also had become a key contributor on punt coverage, and Ryan Switzer’s two punt return touchdowns ended up swinging the game in the Tar Heels’ favor.
“I don’t know if Trenton specifically would’ve made a difference, but I sure like our units when he’s on them,” Chryst said.
Freshman tackle Dorian Johnson made his second career start Saturday in Bisnowaty’s absence, but was replaced early in the second half by redshirt senior Juantez Hollins.
With Hollins in the game, the Panthers were much more successful in moving the ball and sustaining drives. They had 211 total offensive yards in the second half, compared to just 148 in the first.
“I thought at the time that [Hollins] would give us a little bit better chance in what we were doing at the time,” Chryst said. “I thought Dorian did some very good things.”
Chryst did not say which one would start if Bisnowaty is out Saturday against Syracuse.
Special teams blame
Chryst accepted responsibility when asked about special teams coaching. The Panthers do not have an assigned special teams coach, and the unit is handled collectively by the entire staff.
Saturday, the punt coverage bore a chunk responsibility for the loss with its two touchdowns allowed.
“We’ve got an individual coach in charge of each phase,” Chryst said. “Ultimately, I’m responsible for them all. So if they [fans] want to blame someone, they can blame me.”
Black Friday kickoff set
The Nov. 29 game against Miami will kick off at 3:30 p.m. and be broadcast nationally on ABC. It will be Pitt’s sixth nationally broadcast game of the season.
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.