Cook: Chryst, Panthers off to brutal start to '12 season

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CINCINNATI -- Pitt made tremendous strides between game one and game two. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. All of the players made it to the game Thursday night against Cincinnati. No one did anything stupid to get suspended and let down his teammates. That's real progress after six players were suspended for the Youngstown State game Saturday night. New coach Paul Chryst must be so proud.

Of course, Chryst also must be wondering what he got himself into by taking the Pitt job.

And wondering what team the Panthers are going to beat this season.

Gardner-Webb no longer looks like a gimme, does it?

The Pitt players were bad and couldn't match Cincinnati's speed, Chryst was worse and the result was a hideous 34-10 loss at Nippert Stadium. And so the fabled River City Rivalry, established way back in 2005, came to an anticlimactic end. Pitt moves on to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season. Cincinnati, which has won four of the past five games in the series, must be crying the blues because of it.

Chryst talked in the days leading up to the game about how much he liked the way the Pitt players responded to their humiliating 31-17 home loss to Division I-AA Youngstown State. No one went into the tank, he said. No one had his head down.

Good thing.

If Pitt wasn't so ready to play, this game could have really turned ugly in a hurry.

As it was, Cincinnati led just 14-0 fewer than 5 minutes in.

Pitt opened the game with a three-and-out series that included a near-interception thrown by quarterback Tino Sunseri and a false-start penalty on tackle Matt Rotheram. Cincinnati running back George Winn went 58 yards up the middle untouched for a touchdown on the Bearcats' first play.

"That's football," Chryst would say later.

Probably not the kind Pitt fans want to watch, though.

Sunseri couldn't keep from turning over the ball on Pitt's second possession, losing a fumble after he was blindsided by defensive end Walter Stewart, who blew right by offensive tackle Corey King. It took Cincinnati just four plays to go 38 yards for a touchdown and that 14-0 lead.

For the second consecutive game, Chryst most certainly did not have Pitt ready to play. Youngstown State went 79 yards in 10 plays to score a touchdown on its first possession and never looked back. I'm guessing Virginia Tech will want the ball if it wins the toss when it plays at Pitt a week from Saturday.

But as bad as Chryst's game preparation was, his clock management was even worse. That can be tough for veteran head coaches -- let alone a rookie -- but he was especially brutal. It's bad enough that Pitt had to call a timeout and take a delay-of-game penalty in the first half because Chryst was late getting the play calls in and then had to take two timeouts on its first possession of the third quarter. But what happened at the end of the first half was absurd.

Pitt trailed, 17-0, having lost a 6-yard touchdown run by running back Ray Graham after a dubious holding penalty against guard Chris Jacobson and then a chance for any points on that drive when Sunseri threw an interception in the end zone. But, somehow, it still was in the game when Sunseri completed a shovel pass to running back Isaac Bennett for a 14-yard gain to the Cincinnati 4 with about 25 seconds left. Chryst had one timeout left but elected to let the clock run, wasting precious time. Just how precious that time was became clear when Pitt faced a first-and-goal at the Cincinnati 2 with 5 seconds left.

Chryst put his trust in Sunseri instead of taking the 3 points with a field goal. With another quarterback, maybe that faith would have been justified. But Sunseri, throughout his career, has been known to take bad sacks or make bad plays at the worst possible times. This was another example. He held on to the ball too long before finally throwing it out of the end zone. The clock expired and Pitt got nothing.

You almost could hear the ESPN national television audience laughing before it switched channels to the political coverage.

And you thought Pitt embarrassed itself against Youngstown State?

Hey, at least Chryst got to take that timeout into the locker room with him.

"Obviously, we weren't as prepared for that situation as we should have been," he said. "That's on me."

There were a few positives for Pitt. Graham, coming back from major knee surgery, ran hard and had a 50-yard run on a broken play. Touted freshman tailback Rushel Shell -- one of the six players suspended against Youngstown State for foolish, thoughtless behavior -- made his debut and looked as if he has a chance to be a great one. The defense, which still hasn't forced a turnover, stiffened after the first 5 minutes before cracking in the second half.

It hardly seemed like enough, though.

The good news? Pitt doesn't have to wait long to take its best shot at Gardner-Webb. The game is next up after Virginia Tech and will be played Sept. 22 at Heinz Field.

I really like the Panthers in that one.

That's assuming all of their players stay out of trouble and make it to kickoff, of course.

roncook

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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