Panthers readying for ACC plunge

The countdown clock in the weight room at the Pittsburgh

Panthers complex is unavoidable.

For months, it has relentlessly subtracted the days, hours,

minutes and seconds until the program’s baptism into the ACC on

national television against No. 11 Florida State on Labor Day

night. And in the process, it has ended up driving the Panthers a

little bit crazy.

”Whenever you see the clock winding down, it gives you the

jitters like it’s almost game time,” tight end J.P. Holtz said.

”It’s just going to be a great atmosphere.”

One coach Paul Chryst knows he can’t duplicate in practice, not

that he’s trying anyway. Though he’s a creature of habit, Chryst

knows not all openers are created equal. While 11 more games remain

regardless of what happens next Monday, he’s aware the Panthers

will never get another opportunity to make a first impression.

”I do believe games like this are why guys want to come to

Pittsburgh,” Chryst said. ”When guys think of college football,

they think of games like these.”

Even if it puts Pitt in the difficult position of having to play

one of the most talented teams in the country without so much as a

warmup. While Chryst is pleased with the way his team has responded

during training camp, the Panthers remain very much a work in

progress.

Starting quarterback Tom Savage hasn’t played a live down in

nearly three years. The running backs are banged up and the

offensive line includes two guys making the first starts of their

career.

Still, Holtz wouldn’t have it any other way.

”I would rather start off with all big games to tell you the

truth,” Holtz said. ”That’s why you come to play Division I

football. You come to play the best of the best.”

Though the Seminoles are a more than decade removed from their

spot as perennial national title contenders, they remain one of the

most dangerous programs in the country. One of the quickest too.

Replicating Florida State’s athleticism is difficult. While the

coaching staff will do what it can to get the Panthers prepared,

Chryst admitted that, at some point, it’s going to be up to the

players to figure it out.

”Ask a freshman in camp, and they’ll say the speed of the game

is faster (in college),” Chryst said. ”When you’re playing an

opponent with a lot of speed at different positions like Florida

State, the best thing you can do is go with your best players and

then adjust.

”There’s a lot of adjusting in first games.”

And, the Panthers hope, a lot of growth too.

Chryst’s arrival gave Pitt needed stability at the top, but he

spent most of his first season trying to get a handle on his roster

while figuring out his personnel. It led to an uneven 6-7 year in

2012 in which the Panthers never once found a way to ease their

record over .500.

The feeling-out process is over. Chryst has earned his team’s

trust, and his players have earned his respect.

”It feels a lot different than last year, the whole team, the

whole atmosphere,” Holtz said. ”We’ve had a lot of position

changes and a lot of new guys on the team stepping up.”

The group will step onto Heinz Field as one next Monday. Picked

to finish fifth in the ACC Coastal Division, the Panthers know

critics aren’t expecting much. That’s fine. The path to

respectability is pretty straightforward. Sure, all season openers

are different, but Chryst points out how to win football games

rarely changes.

If Pitt can take care of the ball, stop the run and not be

overwhelmed by the stage, the Panthers believe they’ll be right

there at the end.

”We know what we can do,” Holtz said. ”A lot of people don’t

have faith in us, but us as a group we all have faith in each

other.”