BY WILL GRAVES
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.”