PITTSBURGH – Paul Chryst never said it was going to be easy.
The Pitt coach knew there would be growing pains for a team in desperate need of stability. Halfway through his first season, Chryst's players aren't the only ones learning on the job.
The Panthers (2-4) were trailing unbeaten Louisville by 10 points in the fourth quarter on Sunday when Pitt faced fourth-and-8 at the Louisville 22. Even though Pitt trailed by two scores and had a full complement of timeouts, Chryst opted to go for it, and the comeback attempt died shortly thereafter.
Looking back, Chryst allows kicking it may have been the better option.
"It's hard to sit up here knowing the result that we didn't get it to say that 'Yeah, I feel great about that,'" Chryst said. "I don't feel that's one where you're sitting there and say, 'Geez, if I had to do it all over again I absolutely would do that.'"
Yet Chryst is hardly despondent even though the Panthers remain winless (0-3) in their final season in the Big East. Pitt steps out of conference on Saturday to face struggling Buffalo (1-5) hoping to build some momentum that will carry them to the finish.
"I'm encouraged that a lot of things that need to be fixed are fixable," he said.
Don't mistake Chryst's optimism for satisfaction with his team or with himself. Progress is great. Wins are better. When asked to gauge his own performance Chryst shrugged his shoulders.
"Yeah I'd say it's 2-4 so that's 33 percent," Chryst said. "You know I don't get into that. We're not where we want to be. I think that guys are working and I appreciate that, but I'll leave that (grading) for other people to do."
The Panthers have already shown the ability to bounce back under Chryst, rebounding from an 0-2 start to stun then 13th-ranked Virginia Tech. They'll have to do it again if they want to keep any sort of bowl hopes alive.
Chryst insists there's no magic elixir. The Panthers simply need to start playing better and eliminate the kind of mistakes that have cost them at crucial moments.
"Coach talks a lot about only playing one team on gamedays instead of two," senior center Ryan Turnley said. "We've got to do a better job of that."
The Panthers have been productive. Quarterback Tino Sunseri is on pace for one of the best seasons in school history, Dan Marino included. Sunseri leads the Big East in quarterback efficiency and has completed 74 percent of his passes with just one interception over his last four games.
Freshman running back Rushel Shell continues to flourish, shaking off back spasms that sidelined him during a 14-13 loss at Syracuse to rush for 96 yards and a touchdown against Louisville while adding five receptions for 34 yards.
Despite Shell's precociousness, Chryst refuses to say Shell has supplanted senior Ray Graham as the team's No. 1 tailback. Chryst has never felt the need to put together a defined pecking order in the past, there's no need to start now.
"When both are playing at a high level, which I think they're both capable of playing at a high level, I think the stat line can be different, but the impact can be the same," Chryst said.
The two should have little trouble finding running room on Saturday against the Bulls, who are allowing 194 yards per game on the ground. To be honest, Chryst doesn't care who carries the ball so long as the Panthers go about doing their jobs.
Halfway through his first season in charge, he knows time is running out.
"We've got to get things going," Chryst said. "I still think winning is a by-product of doing everything the right way. I think we've got to take some steps forward."
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