PITTSBURGH – When Paul Chryst took over at Pitt in January, he told the Panthers he was making some alterations to their jerseys.
Well, just one actually.
Chryst stripped the names off the back, telling his players the names would return when he felt the team actually started playing like one.
The Panthers didn't balk at the move. The evidence of widespread selfishness — of guys going all-in — was there on the tape for all to see.
"With a new coaching staff coming in here, guys have to earn the coaches' respect and you have to put your time in," offensive lineman Chris Jacobsen said. "Coach Chryst did it as a thing saying we're a team and not individuals."
It took nearly a year, but the Panthers have finally won Chryst over. The names will return on Saturday when Pitt (4-4) travels to fourth-ranked Notre Dame (8-0), a token of appreciation from Chryst to his players for the way they've hung in there.
Chryst could see things start to come together in recent weeks and after a somewhat sluggish win over Buffalo on Oct. 20, he told his players if they could beat Temple the equipment manager would have a busy week ahead of him.
The Panthers responded with an emphatic 47-17 win, posting their highest point total against an FBS team in 13 years. Ray Graham rolled up 180 yards of total offense, quarterback Tino Sunseri passed for 321 yards and the defense left little doubt.
"A lot of players impacted it," Chryst said.
It was the kind of selfless play Chryst has been preaching for months. Not one for easily attained motivational ploys, Chryst insisted the reward was for his team's hard work, not just one solid afternoon against a program it beats with regularity.
"I thought that it was the right thing for this group at this time," he said.
The return of the names is a bit of a double-edged sword for the Panthers. Sure, the names are back, but they're back during a week when they face their toughest task of the season.
Resurgent Notre Dame is stirring up the echoes behind a smothering defense led by Heisman Trophy candidate Manti Te'o. Pitt already has one upset over a Top 25 opponent this season, but that was at home in September against a Virginia Tech team that wasn't quite as good as advertised.
The Fighting Irish are no fluky unbeaten. They thumped Oklahoma on the road last Saturday and are surging into the national championship conversation.
Pitt doesn't see itself as a spoiler, insisting this is just another game. Maybe, but it's one they believe they're capable of winning. They might not have said the same thing a month ago.
"I think we're getting better," Chryst said. "I think we've been inconsistent. Two weeks ago I thought we weren't running the ball consistently ... (but) guys are getting a feel for some things. Are we in better shape now than before? I don't know if I can answer that question honestly."
Chryst expects his players to have provide the answer for him, though Pitt will go into the game shorthanded. The Panthers have lost junior linebacker Dan Mason for the season due to internal injuries to his abdomen he suffered against Temple. It was a bitter blow for one of the team's toughest players.
Mason missed nearly two full seasons due to a severe right knee injury against Miami (Fla.) on Sept. 23, 2010. He returned to the starting lineup against Buffalo — recording a team-high 11 tackles — and made a couple of big stops versus the Owls before going down again.
Chryst said Mason is "doing really good" and doesn't have a "woe is me" attitude despite the setback. It's that kind of mindset that has permeated the locker room in recent weeks as Pitt deepened its trust in its third coaching staff in as many seasons.
"I think that guys are really starting to buy in and to do things the right way on a consistent basis," center Ryan Turnley said. "That consistency, that's something that's plagued us the whole year and something we need to work on."
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