No other collegiate team in Western Pennsylvania has a history to match the University of Pittsburgh football program.
Pop Warner won three national championships here; you’re welcome, youth football players. Mike Ditka became a standout here; you’re welcome, Chicago. Those two personalities alone would be enough to cement the school’s bragging. But throw in names like Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino, Curtis Martin, Darrelle Revis and Larry Fitzgerald, and we’re talking the stuff of legends. It’s why we love the Panthers so much, and why we are so heartbroken when they get our hopes up every year and then suffer a crushing defeat that figuratively ends the season.
The North Carolina Tar Heels came to town to deliver that defeat at a recent game at Heinz Field. The Panthers had lost only one game all year and had emerged from the “others-receiving-votes” category of the college-football rankings. For the first time in five seasons, Pitt had a number in front of its name: The team was ranked at No. 23 by the Associated Press and No. 24 in the Amway Coaches Poll. I am not sure when a company that sells health and beauty products began ranking college-football teams, but it clearly showed a lack of respect to the Panthers.
A press pass enabled me to forego the cheap seats this time and take in the Pittsburgh-North Carolina game in style. It’s not often that I get to watch a game in a venue that offers a meat-carving station. In the press box, the smell of beer-soaked fans is just a horrible memory. Luckily, you still get to hear some cursing.
Being a college football fan is a young person’s sport. There’s so much energy coming from the youngsters, and you know that their evening is just beginning after a night game. I start getting tired in the third quarter. I do feel younger in the press box, full of veteran reporters, although I am the only one taking my notes on paper. I quickly realized that I was the only one in the room without a tablet, laptop or college diploma.
One thing I had in common with everybody else, though, was that sinking feeling when the Tar Heels took a 20-3 lead into the half. It’s that feeling that makes you nervous about falling in love with Pitt football again.
However, first-year head coach Pat Narduzzi’s team has a different feel this year. No one was muttering “typical Pitt” as they headed towards defeat. Narduzzi is different from Paul Chryst, who makes Ben Carson seem like a whirling dervish of personality. He is also much more likable than “Wham, Bam, Thank You Todd Graham’s” huckster persona. Combine Narduzzi’s cheerful optimism with an impressive amount of talent, and things are looking up for the blue and gold.
Wide receiver Tyler Boyd is all-everything. A standout at Clairton High School, Boyd recently passed Devin Street as the university’s all-time receptions leader — a feat he accomplished as a junior. Boyd catches everything quarterback Nate Peterman throws in his direction. Qadree Ollison, the freshman from Niagara Falls, took over the tailback spot after the mega-talented James Connor was injured. Ollison responded by setting a freshman record for rushing yards in a season-opener when he ran for 207 yards against Youngstown State.
The Panthers played well against the Tar Heels, but came up short. Still, I don’t feel like it’s time to panic. Even after this past weekend’s loss to sixth-ranked Notre Dame, I still feel good about this team. At 6-3, they’re already bowl-eligible, and with three winnable games left, they have a chance to post a pretty nice first season for Narduzzi.
Pitt is on the road against Duke this week and still has two home games left at Heinz Field. On Nov. 21, the Louisville Cardinals come to town, followed a week later by the once-proud Miami Hurricanes. There are still plenty of cheap seats available for those games. You’ll just have to try and make do without the carving station.