Collier: Not hard to improve after Pitt letdown

Panthers have plenty to learn from game film of season opener

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The way things are going politically in matters of collective bargaining right now, this might have been the only chance anyone had to see the Penguins this fall, which I guess is why everyone seemed so festive despite the circumstances.

A wary Pitt fan base anxious to drive the high-octane, low-competence autumn of last year deep into its rear view turned out on a perfectly anti-lovely flash flood-watch kind of evening for a season-opening appointment with the Youngstown State Penguins.

More than 40,000 of 'em hung around through a pre-kickoff rain delay and remained in good spirits even when it became apparent that Youngstown State was not looking past the Panthers to the big one next weekend against Valparaiso.

New Panthers coach Paul Chryst was way ahead of them, cracking open his own six-pack earlier in the day, this one a six-pack of suspensions that included one for starting nose tackle Tyrone Ezell of Munhall and another for celebrated running-back recruit Rushel Shell of Hopewell.

It's pretty likely that Chryst set the school record for suspensions on the day of the opener, but there's no entry like that in the Pitt media guide. It's also pretty likely that all six players got slammed as a result of the same ill-advised incident because there's no way Chryst would have had the premier performance of his first head-coaching job preceded immediately by six separate suspension-worthy acts.

I mean, nobody's that unlucky.

Unless, of course, it's Bill O'Brien at Penn State.

Chryst has a much-deserved reputation as a fairly gifted offensive strategist, having most recently directed the attack at Wisconsin, where his Badgers averaged better than 39 points per game over the past three years. Still, I don't think he appreciated the way Youngstown State's offense slashed his Panthers defense, particularly in the first half when it converted six consecutive third-down situations on the way to a 14-10 halftime lead.

To get a handle on that indignity, this is the same Youngstown State that Pitt has deigned to play but twice in its history, the same Youngstown State that Pitt outscored, 79-3, in those meetings, the same Youngstown State that had dropped nine consecutive games against opponents in college football's top division.

But the more tangible, more immediate and perhaps more lasting indignities came on the Penguins' first possession after halftime, when they not only embarrassed Pitt's defense but took an unthinkable stranglehold on a miserable night's outcome.

Defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Pitt's most fearsome defender, left his mark in this one in the wrong way, namely by extending a modest six-yard Jamaine Cook run by 15 yards with a facemask penalty that put the ball at the Pitt 32. Four plays later, Youngstown State's clever quarterback, Kurt Hess, handed off to Cook in sweep action to the right, but Cook slammed on the brakes, set himself and lofted a 23-yard pass to Will Shaw.

Shaw was far enough behind the Pitt defense as to be closer to the dying embers of the parking lot rib cookoff than to the Panthers' befuddled safeties. That touchdown expanded Youngstown State's lead to 11 points, and the Penguins would never get any less comfortable.

"That certainly was not the way anyone would want to start the season," Chryst said 20 minutes after YSU put the final trimmings on a 31-17 victory. "We'll learn a lot from the tape."

Maybe, but even the head coach noted there would be a lack of mystery about it.

"They were very well-coached," Chryst said on the night Eric Wolford ran his Penguins record to 10-13. "I thought tonight they were the better football team, honestly."

Honestly, dishonestly, empirically, demonstrably and 30 more adverbs wouldn't make it any clearer than a 31-17 humbling in your own building. But just in case, consider the performance of Youngstown State's Andre Stubbs.

A freshman from Maple Heights, Ohio, Stubbs just happened to be the smallest player on the field Saturday night, but there was nothing about this 5-foot-6, 160-pound package that could be folded, spindled, mutilated or altered into anything but threatening, at least by Pitt's almost incomprehensibly malleable defense.

Stubbs ran the ball six times but gained 71 yards. Stubbs caught the ball four times but gained 61 yards. Stubbs returned kicks twice but gained 40 yards. Even on the calculator on my Dumb Phone, that would be 172 yards on 12 touches, or 14.3333333 yards every time Stubbs had it.

Good thing he didn't have it that much. Even when he didn't, Youngstown State kept the ball for more than 35 minutes, principally by going 11 for 16 on third down. Chryst had the mistaken impression that there were a lot of third-and-shorts in there, but the first six, all successfully converted, were third-and-7, 8, 5, 4, 6, and 10.

But as the new coach said, Pitt will learn a lot from the tape. Just not a lot that will be terribly flattering. If he can just limit the suspensions for the next game to fewer than a half-dozen, that would represent progress.

genecollier


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