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On senior day, Pitt not giving up the fight

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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Pitt saftey Ray Vinopal looks for the ball against Delaware Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014 at Heinz Field.

Pitt’s season is reduced to two games that carry no ACC significance. Bowl hopes exist, but they are little more than a whisper.

Yet senior safety Ray Vinopal can’t wait for the Panthers’ home finale Saturday at Heinz Field against Syracuse.

“It’s going to be the last time I’m going to walk out of the tunnel wearing the Pitt helmet and Pitt on my chest,” he said.

Vinopal has played three seasons at Pitt after transferring from Michigan in 2011. He has started 24 games — 13 of them losses — but he’s hopeful of making a run for a bowl berth.

Before that, however, he will be honored along with 10 senior classmates at Saturday’s game. That moment will be as meaningful to Vinopal as his two interceptions last year that triggered the victory against Notre Dame.

“It will be special having my parents down there,” he said. “I don’t think they know what it’s like to walk out on the field out of the tunnel.

“We’d love for the house to be packed. It would make it even better. If it’s not, we’re still going to enjoy the moment.”

The game figures to be nearly as close as the past two Pitt/Syracuse games, split one-point decisions at the Carrier Dome.

That seems to be the case when Pitt’s Paul Chryst and Syracuse’s second-year coach Scott Shafer get together. In 2008, they were dueling Big Ten coordinators, Chryst on offense for Wisconsin and Shafer in charge of Michigan’s defense. Michigan won 27-25.

Six years later, Chryst finds himself trying to pull Pitt out of a 1-6 slump, the school’s worst extended stretch since Walt Harris’ second team lost its last seven in 1998.

Pitt has found offense, with James Conner leading the ACC in rushing and Tyler Boyd a constant threat in the passing game.

But the defense has allowed 147 points in the past three games.

Meanwhile, injuries and interceptions forced Syracuse to use fourth-string quarterback Mitch Kimble last week in a 27-10 loss to Duke.

Syracuse (3-7, 1-5) has no hope of going to a bowl. Pitt (4-6, 2-4) needs to win its final two games, including a trip to Miami next week, to become eligible. Pitt hasn’t played in Miami since 2002 and hasn’t won there since 1963.

Quarterback Chad Voytik said he and his teammates understand the situation, and there hasn’t been much talk about it.

“There’s not much you need to say in this situation,” he said. “You know what you have to do.”

Chryst said his team hasn’t lost its will to win. Vinopal and Voytik are among several players who continue to spend extra time watching video, before and after practice.

“No one is ducking the things that need to be (fixed),” Chryst said. “There is still a lot of fight in this group.”

Note: Although four WPIAL championship games were played Friday at Heinz Field, Chryst said he isn’t worried about the condition of the turf. “(Stadium officials) take a ton of pride in it,” he said.

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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