Conner's dedication; ranking Pitt's potential opponents

Written by Brian Batko on .

From one former WPIAL 1,000-yard rusher to another, Pitt star James Conner took the spotlight on him Saturday night and shined it on DiMantae Bronaugh, instead.

Conner wasn’t in action, but made his presence felt at the ACC championship in Orlando, Fla., nonetheless — and Bronaugh's presence, too.

While being honored with the conference’s Brian Piccolo Award for its most courageous player, an accolade that was announced Thursday, Conner took the opportunity to speak of late Aliquippa player DiMantae Bronaugh, who died Tuesday after his own battle with leukemia. Conner, who of course beat cancer to return to the field this season and rush for more than 1,000 yards, said receiving the award was bittersweet after learning of Bronaugh’s death Tuesday.


“I always say you play for somebody who can’t,” Conner said in an article on “And I’ll definitely be playing for him this bowl game and probably for the rest of my career.”

Also in the article written by Sam Gardner, Conner expands on the relationship he had with Bronaugh, who ran for more than 1,000 yards as a junior at Aliquippa in 2014. His running mate that year was Quips star Kaezon Pugh, now a freshman linebacker at Pitt. 

I included the Conner-Bronaugh story from Saturday night on our college football page in Sunday morning's Post-Gazette, page C-4, if you'd like to check it out.


That's pretty much where we are right now. We'll find out sometime Sunday where Pitt is headed later this month and who the Panthers will face. A quick roundup of bowl projections from various sites, in one handy place:

Fox Sports' Stewart Mandel - Stanford, Sun Bowl
ESPN's Mark Schlabach - Utah, Sun
ESPN's Brett McMurphy - Utah, Sun
SBNation - Stanford, Sun
CBS Sports - Northwestern, Pinstripe Bowl
Yahoo - Stanford, Sun
Sporting News - Northwestern, Pinstripe
Sports Illustrated - Northwestern, Pinstripe
247Sports - Stanford, Sun
Athlon Sports - West Virginia, Russell Athletic Bowl

So, that's four guesses for Stanford, three for Northwestern, two for Utah and one brave soul predicting a Backyard Brawl Bowl (FWIW, Mandel was dead-on about Pitt to the Military Bowl last year before the final weekend). Now, I'd never claim Pitt "deserves better" than any opponent, but just for fun, here's one man's ranking of who would be most fun (bowl location/prestige, aside).

1. West Virginia — For obvious reasons. Even if you hate WVU with a passion, this would make for a great bowl atmosphere.

2. Stanford — Christian McCaffrey alone would make this an intriguing matchup, even if the name on his jersey said "Idaho" but it doesn't. With all its tradition and big-name stature, Stanford would make for a high-profile bowl game. "McCaffery. Conner. It's the Sun Bowl on Whatever Channel The Sun Bowl's On."

3. Northwestern — James Conner and Justin Jackson would be another solid matchup of top RBs. Not to mention, the P-G's Ron Cook went to Northwestern, so this would almost be like a rivalry game.

4. Utah — If only because I figure Pitt fans wouldn't want flashbacks to that 2005 Fiesta Bowl when the Utes creamed the Panthers 35-7. Or that 2010 season opener when a Tino Sunseri overtime interception ruined a good thing before the No. 15 Panthers could even get rolling. Basically, things just never seem to go well for Pitt against Utah.

5. Navy — OK, so none of the bowl projection gurus put their chips on the Midshipmen, who are a mortal lock to the Armed Forces Bowl to play a Big 12 team, but I'm just going to assume no one — from coaches and players who'd have to prepare for the triple-option to the fans who'd have to watch them try to stop it — from Pitt wants to see this team in a bowl for the second year in a row.

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A Pitt football would-you-rather

Written by Brian Batko on .

For my first real post, not the self-indulgent one from Wednesday, here on Red Shirt Diaries (the name of this blog that’s been around for a while, but I like it, so no reason to change it -- I think I’ve been told Paul Zeise came up with it), I have an either-or to consider.

It has nothing to do with bowl games or James Conner or anything to do with this season at all, and it’s a hypothetical that falls between worst-case and best-case scenarios (I know, right, who wants to traffic in realistic gray areas such as that?)

Many Pitt football followers have been on #zairewatch since Tuesday, when it was reported that Notre Dame quarterback and former Pitt recruiting target Malik Zaire will be an immediately eligible graduate transfer. Not only that, but Pitt was listed as one of four schools immediately in the mix for his services.

Then again, plenty of those same Pitt football followers have been on #wadewatch for long, long time -- that, of course, being Clairton star senior Lamont Wade, the blue-chip cornerback recruit who does whatever he wants against WPIAL competition.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated PressHaley Nelson/Post-Gazette  

So I ask you this, a simple question that could potentially have a complex answer: If Pitt can only end up with one of those two players next year, Malik Zaire or Lamont Wade, who should be the preferred choice?

I know, I know, the obvious retort here is like that one taco commercial:

Porque no los dos?

Obviously, most any team would want both, and that may well go down for Pitt. But this is my hypothetical, and I say if that can’t happen, who’s the pick?

Personally, I’d lean toward Wade -- for both production and perception. The secondary has undeniably been the weakest part of Pitt’s team this season, and Wade could start at corner from Day 1. And from what I’ve seen of him a few times in person, he could even do some Jordan Whitehead-type stuff on offense, too. And from a perception standpoint, getting Wade would mean beating out Penn State in a high-stakes recruiting battle. That would be a nice look for Pitt, as would getting the top player in the WPIAL in the 2017 class from a Pitt pipeline like Clairton (not to mention you get him for at least three years).

But Zaire, well, he plays what most consider to be the most important position on the field and has already had some fine moments in his college career before being injured early last season (then falling behind/getting Wally Pipp’d by DeShone Kizer). And wouldn’t it be nice to replace Nate Peterman with a guy who could keep this offense great again? Pitt’s dynamic attack under Matt Canada has been the talk of the town lately, and one would assume Zaire an upgrade over potential starting QBs next season Thomas MacVittie (current redshirting freshman) and Bo Schneider (currently redshirting UCF transfer).

The Zaire story has already been a bit of a “saga” as he was initially restricted from leaving Notre Dame for any team the Irish play next season, but now apparently has no restrictions. So surely, there will be plenty of coaches vying for him, but his one-time Pitt connections can’t be ignored. He considered the Panthers strongly when Paul Chryst was in town, and also considered Wisconsin when Canada was offensive coordinator there in 2012.

Wade is set to announce Saturday, Dec. 17th, and many believe it will be Pitt or Penn State.

It’s entirely possible Pitt gets both; it’s entirely possible Pitt gets neither. Just some food for thought. I’ll put a poll up on my Twitter @BrianBatko if anyone wants to vote on this.

Most fascinating of all is that Miami Heat Chicago Bulls star Dwyane Wade has a son named Zaire Wade, who I presume would become a huge Pitt football fan if this all goes down.

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On to the Pitt beat, I guess, right?

Written by Brian Batko on .

The headline of the most recent entry on this blog before this one read: “Pitt heading to Clemson with "upset" on the mind”.

And, also, me.

While some of you may know me, remember me or at least recognize my name from covering Pitt athletics in the student media or, much more recently, at Panther-Lair, I’m also not naive enough to assume you do, so a quick bit about who I am and where I’ve come from.

OK, so I wasn’t packed away with cargo on the team plane to Greenville a few weeks ago or anything. But I was there in Death Valley that day that turned to night by the end of it. “It” of course being 43-42, when Pitt stunned No. 2/3 Clemson on its senior day.

I was always supposed to go to Clemson. I drew that exciting assignment way back in the summer when we needed someone to fill in. But between then and now, our Pitt football reporter Jenn Menendez left the paper, and somewhat coincidentally, this job officially came open not long before my trip to Clemson.

So when Chris Blewitt’s kick went through the uprights, I couldn’t help but think maybe that was some sort of sign that I should return to my roots, in a sense, and pursue this beat (incidentally, here’s that game story if you want to read it). Obviously, I did, and I’ll truly miss my previous role covering Duquesne basketball, district college football and especially high school sports in the WPIAL/City League -- no qualifier there, I just will.

My time following Pitt football closely started somewhere between 13-9 and Mardy Gilyard (don’t need to tell you what those mean). I worked at the Pitt News, WPTS student radio and spent a lot of time trying to build Panther Sports Network when I was a student at Pitt from 2009-2013. Then I did some freelance work for Panther-Lair while working at the Post-Gazette on the sports copy desk. Early this year, I moved into a reporting role at the P-G writing about high school football, basketball, baseball, as well as Duquesne sports and the smaller colleges in the area.

Now I’m here, and I plan to cover my alma mater fairly, not fawningly. I’ve never been passionate about Pitt football, but for the past few years, I’ve been passionate about knowing as much as I can about Pitt football, then passing that on to whoever wants to read it. I’m not here to pump up the program, nor push some perceived anti-Pitt agenda that doesn’t actually exist and never has.

That’s enough about me and how I got on. I’m still juggling some of my other responsibilities for the time being, and our lead basketball writer Craig Meyer isn’t going anywhere, so you might still see some football stuff from him in the interim, and eventually a little basketball stuff from me. But I’ll be at whatever bowl game Pitt ends up in (no, I don’t know which one it’ll be) and hopefully doing some more posts on here soon and we’ll go from there.

Thanks to everyone who’s recently followed me on Twitter (pfft, can’t believe you weren’t there already over the last ~five years) and I’ll see you around.

Brian Batko: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and Twitter @BrianBatko.

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Narduzzi: Pitt heading to Clemson with "upset" on the mind

Written by Jenn Menendez on .

In advance of Pitt’s toughest challenge yet this season, coach Pat Narduzzi spoke this afternoon on the weekly ACC conference call with media about the Panthers needing to head to Death Valley “with upset” on their mind. It's a tall task for the Panthers (5-4, 2-3 ACC) to upset No. 2 ranked Clemson (9-0, 6-0 ACC). 

Game: 3:30 p.m.


Narduzzi's opening statement: "Obviously we have a great opportunity to travel down to Death Valley and play a really tremendous football team. Dabo Swinney has done an incredible job of really building his personnel, his system, put his mark on Clemson football. When you put on the tape, you see great coaching, you see great players, you see execution. They've got a winning attitude. Certainly have things going in the right way. They are the measuring stick really for the ACC conference, where everybody in the ACC would like to be. We get an opportunity to find out how we measure up Saturday at 3. I think our kids are looking forward to it.”

Q. Can you stop Clemson's offense or you just have to try to slow them down?

Narduzzi: “You have to try to slow them down enough. Saw an interesting stat today. They are 91-1 when they have over 500 yards of total offense. I'm like 90 times they've had over 500 yards of total offense? That's where college football is going. You don’t stop ‘em, you got to slow ‘em down. They have major play-makers. Deshaun Watson is running the whole thing. Gallagher is a fast guy. Mike Williams and Deon Cain, Deon is a backup, incredible football player. When you look at the talent, they got three underclassmen declared for the draft already, on top of all the great senior players they have. You slow them down, we got to be in position, we got to keep things in front of us for sure, make them earn it, try not to give up big plays."

Q. What is the one thing you have to do on offense and defense to win at Death Valley this weekend?

Narduzzi: “As a football team, we got to come in with some confidence that you can stop them, slow them down, score on them. Matt has done a great job with our offense all year. We have to continue to make some big plays. We're going to run our offense. We're not going to go down there and trick Brent Venables. You are not going to trick them. You have to out-execute them. Our kids, as you saw last night, upsets happen. That's what we’re going into Death Valley with, upset on our mind. Offensively we got to do what we do. Defensively we have to eliminate the big plays. There's so many weapons. You say stop the run. You have an athletic quarterback. Deshaun can run with it any time. They got weapons outside. Between stopping Deshaun in the backfield, trying to contain Ray-Ray McCloud, Artavis Scott, Mike Williams, Deon Cain. It's a handful. I might add that Jeff Scott and Marion Hobby have done a great job of co-coordinating that offense. When you watch it, it looks maybe simple, but they do a lot of great things with motion and checks you have to get in to really execute your defense. Our guys are going to have to be locked in, focused on the little things that we have to do with the crowd in mind. It will be a great challenge, but I think our kids are looking forward to it.”

Q. I know you could talk for an hour about what James Conner has been through in coming back. What does his return mean to you and the program?

Narduzzi: “It means a lot on the field and off the field. Off the field, you just look at him and we're just happy he's made it this far. He's defeated, beat up cancer. On top of all that, he's come back and really performed at, in my opinion, in an elite way as a football player. A lot of guys can beat cancer, I guess. Doesn’t happen every day. We all know people that have fallen to it. He's a guy that's not only beaten it, he's beaten the odds in every respect. He's been able to come back and compete. I think he's getting better every week.”

Q. I want to ask about your defensive line depth. You've been asked to use those guys a lot more than maybe you thought you would need to due to injuries. How do you think younger players like Folston, Edwards, Watts, have really stepped up these last couple weeks? What do you think they've done that shows you some hope for the future at that position?

Narduzzi: “They've really done a lot, to be honest with you. We've wanted to play them all along. We planned on playing Watts all year. You get into battles, sometimes they don't get as many reps as possible. Amir (Watts) got as many reps last week as he has really combined the entire year on defense. It was great to see. When you put the tape on, he's playing against I think a very good, experienced offensive line in Miami last week, really doing a great job. Jeremiah Taleni, I wouldn't call him a young guy, but a guy that has stepped up and made major improvements. I’m glad those guys are in there. I want Jeremiah, Amir to be playing a lot more inside. Soto and Tyrique Jarett are two great players. To go in there and take every snap, take 64, 85, 79 plays a game is hard. It's great that those guys have stepped up. At the defensive end spot with Folston, Edwards, Allen has done a great job. I'm happy, again, with where they are. They've been there all year. You'd like to be able to rotate those guys more. They're waiting their turn to get in there when we need them. They've stepped up and given us the best they can.”

Q. It sounded like Ejuan Price was disappointed with the way he played against Miami last week. He said as much after the game. How would you evaluate what he was able to do in that game?

Narduzzi: “Ejuan is a perfectionist. We kind of knew Miami would do what we call gap protection. They slid the protection to him a lot, which we anticipated. There's not a whole lot you can do. What you need to do is to continue to recruit and get another guy on the other side that can complement him, some guys inside. If you do that, I'm going to make you pay over here. I think that's the key. But Ejuan played a good game. Ejuan is a perfectionist, if he doesn't get three sacks a game, he's never happy, unless we get a W, then everybody is happy. Ejuan always wants more. That's why he's such a great player. He's motivated. He's focused. He wants to do whatever he can do to win a game.

Q. With the way the defense has been lately, did you see some warning signs of this in August or was this all kind of as the injuries unfolded?

Narduzzi: “I think injuries always play a role in that. You never expect things. I think things happen during the season that you can't anticipate. Obviously during camp I didn't anticipate, because I thought we did a good job against our own people. You're defending a different offense in camp, so you don't really see maybe the weaknesses of what maybe you have until you get into the season. Where we stand right now, I think four of our losses are to top-25 teams, good football teams. Miami is right there. You look at who Miami has lost to, they've lost to top-25 teams, top-10 teams. When you're playing competitive football, I mean, we can go win a lot of games in the MAC, but we play in the ACC conference. It's competitive. It's a work in progress. We're continuing to fight. Nothing surprises me. There's good players. You look at what you're facing every week from Virginia Tech to Oklahoma State to North Carolina with Switzer, now this weekend trying to make Mike Williams and Deon Cain, those guys, Deshaun Watson is a threat running and throwing it. He has a cannon arm. He's throwing the ball 70 yards down the field. He's unique. He's going to be a great NFL football player. I mean, those are things that you can't test yourself in doubles.”



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ACC Coaches call: Pat Narduzzi

Written by Jenn Menendez on .

Pitt (5-3, 2-2 ACC) heads to Miami (4-4, 1-3) this weekend for an important game at Hard Rock Stadium.

Kickoff: 12:30 p.m.

Coach Pat Narduzzi spoke on today's ACC Coaches call. Here is is opening statement, followed by a Q&A:

"Obviously we have a great opponent this weekend in Miami, and if you look at the record at 4-4, you really don't get to see the tale of really what they are. Mark Richt does a heck of a job. He's a super football coach. He's got a great staff, and they are well-coached when you watch them.

"If you look at the numbers and look who they've lost to, a great Florida State, a great North Carolina team, a very, very good football team in Virginia Tech, and then Notre Dame who we know has pounded year in and year out. We'll have our work cut out for us when we head down to Miami for Saturday's game, and they've got plenty of speed and athleticism. I think they keep it simple so their players can go play. They're aggressive on defense, and aggressive -- we expect to get a lot of shots deep on our defense, and we've been working on that all week.

"I'll open it up for questions.”

How would you describe Brian O'Neill's emergence as a receiving threat for your team?

PAT NARDUZZI: You know, Brian is a great kid. He's very athletic, as you can see. He can run. He could probably still be at tight end if we didn't have a need a year ago, and he's been -- forget what he does carrying the ball or catching the ball out of the backfield, but he's done a great job blocking people, too.

If you look at maybe we've given up four or five sacks on the year, he's done a tremendous job of not only making plays in our run game and pass game, I guess, but he's protected our quarterback, and that's what he does. He's an offensive lineman, and Coach Canada has done a great job of featuring a couple plays that he can do athletically.

I think I read somewhere that he's only given up one sack this season; is that accurate?

PAT NARDUZZI: No, I would say it's probably accurate because I think we've only given up -- I'm not sure, I want to say maybe five sacks on the year, and two of them we kind of gave up on purpose. We didn't want to run out of bounds, otherwise we'd probably stop the clock in kind of a two-minute situation where we were trying to eat the clock up.

I think we've only given up five on the year, and a couple Nathan Peterman has taken on his own just being a smart football player.

Are you worried that he might not be such a secret weapon for you anymore when you get down to the goal line?

PAT NARDUZZI: You know what, if they're looking at an offensive tackle to carry the ball, then they've got problems. But there's so many guys out there that can threaten you with all these great wideouts that we have in the ACC and the tailbacks. I know we're worried about Mark Walton and Yearby in the backfield, Stacy Coley and Ahmmon Richards, those are the guys we're locked into as well as their tight ends. If I've got to worry about Darling or St. Louis, Miami's two offensive tackles, then we will have our eyes probably in the wrong place.

Coming off the Virginia Tech loss, any certain aspects on defense that you're really honing in on for growth heading into this week's game?

PAT NARDUZZI: You know, we've got a few injuries in the secondary and some that we're trying to mend up and patch up, but like I said, obviously you're probably talking about the passing game in a roundabout way.

But we've obviously got to make some plays with the ball. I give Virginia Tech a lot of credit for some of the back shoulder fades they threw. We didn't see any on tape going into the game, and obviously that was their plan of not trying to really -- they're running fades, but they're really throwing it to the back shoulder, kind of pushing off and making a great play, which are probably the hardest ones to defend in press coverage, so we've worked on that this week, and I just wish we would have worked at it a week earlier.

Was last year's Pitt defense better than this year's Pitt defense in any certain area?
PAT NARDUZZI: You know, it's hard. I don't compare year to year because they're different teams. They're different -- you've got Lafayette Pitts, one of our corners, obviously is with the Dolphins now, so obviously you lose him in the secondary. But better -- the question is are some of the offenses better. You're defending different offenses. I know Virginia Tech's offense is better than it was last year, so is it the defense or is it the offense.

And I think the ACC is very explosive, been very impressed not only with the quarterback play that we get in this league but also the skill that you have to defend compared to what maybe you see in the Big Ten.

I missed the first part of you talking a little bit about Danny's score last week. Can you walk me through installing that play in your arsenal?

PAT NARDUZZI: Yeah, we really didn't talk about -- you said selling that play?

Installing it.

PAT NARDUZZI: Oh, installing it. You know, like I said, Coach Canada does a great job with it. He's a very creative mind. The one thing you're looking for is put the ball in the athlete's hands, and Brian O'Neill is a former tight end that is built like a tackle but runs like a tight end. You can see the way he runs that he's got a future after he plays here at the University of Pittsburgh.

It's about we do a lot of jet sweeps, we do a lot of reverses and people are worried about all our jet sweeps going out one way, and it's really just more eye candy that people have to worry about. If you watched our offense, a lot of times he's a guy that's arc releasing and blocking people, but nobody really -- people arc release fullbacks and tight ends but never offensive tackles, so he's athletic enough to arc, release out and block for our jet sweeps, and then obviously athletic enough to pull around and take, I guess, a reverse and go the other way.

How would you describe the reaction from your team when you kind of see it work successfully, and how much does that sort of boost the factor into wanting to run it and at least the timing aspect?

PAT NARDUZZI: Yeah, we've done a great job at some of those little plays that you put in weekly, and every week we've got four or five of them, and when we run them we run them, but it really seems like we've been nailing some of these as far as just working it just like you saw in practice. Sometimes you draw stuff up, whether it be an offensive, defensive or special teams play, we'll block a punt, you draw it up one way and it doesn't look like that on game day, and those are just a few plays that have looked exactly like you drew them up, exactly like you saw on the practice field, and you say, God, I hope it looks like that.

So it'll definitely boost your confidence. I think your kids look at the coaches and say, man, you guys are doing a great job and giving us opportunities to make plays.

I told Coach Canada, you go and have five a week, maybe just get ten, and maybe we'll score even more points.

There's been a lot of interest down here in James Conner's story, and for those of us who aren't quite so familiar with it, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how he's been able to come back this year physically, mentally, any special things you've had to do to help him compensate from his recovery.

PAT NARDUZZI: Yeah, we really -- that's a great question. I know like everybody up here in I guess the northern area is familiar with James, but first off, I'll start by saying he's an incredible kid. I lost my mother-in-law a couple weeks ago, and I don't know if it's every other day he comes up and says, how's your wife doing, asking me -- just an unbelievable kid, and there are just not that many out there. He's a special, special individual. He's obviously a great athlete.

He's overcome some major, major adversity, and I think really a lot of people can't fathom really how much adversity he really had, when you think of chemo and if you saw him in the hospital getting poison pumped into his body to try to kill this cancer, it's amazing what he's done, and he's continued to get better.

During camp we didn't -- we tried to monitor him, know what he's doing, but we didn't really cut his reps down. We thought maybe we had to. I mean, how many people have to deal with this? But he did a great job of training his body coming into camp, but we are seeing him slowly I think even get better.

We put GPS's on our athletes, not every one of them, I think we've got 30 or 40 of them, so you spread them around, but James is a guy we always have one on, and he's practicing at even a higher speed right now than he did four weeks ago in the opener against Penn State, whoever it may be. He's practicing -- I think he played the other game at 20 miles per hour, which in previous games he was at 18, and you really could see it. I told him we're going to crank it up to 21 miles an hour this weekend, and again, I think those are some of the things you're seeing through the season, but he's done a great job of monitoring his own body, and he's tough.

I know everybody's goal on a kickoff is to drive it through the end zone, but on the occasions when it lands, when it's in the end zone, is there a distance that -- I guess what I'm trying to ask is with Quadree Henderson, if he fields it six, seven yards deep, are you okay with him bringing it out?

PAT NARDUZZI: No, every week we give him a little bit different distance as far as where he can take it out. I think last week the Virginia Tech kicker would kick it deep, deep, deep, and I think going into last week's game, Virginia Tech really only had to cover six kicks on the year so far, so they haven't been making many tackles on their kickoff team. But for example, every week is a little different depending on the hang time and how much time you have, but we gave him the 3-yard line last week, and I think we got out to the 21-yard line, and it was like, gosh, maybe we should have just downed it in and maybe just said if it goes in the end zone you get it at the 25. It depends on who those animals are that are running down the field, how good is the hang time from the kick and all those things.

So those are something we measure and say what are our chances, and obviously we didn't block them good enough up front and they caught us at the 21. If we get out past the 26, 27, we've gained a couple yards extra, but if we don't, it's a mistake to take it out. But every week is a little different based on the kicker, his hang time and et cetera.

Is he always chomping at the bit to want to bring it out on his own, and has he ever broken the rule that you give him before each game?

PAT NARDUZZI: You know, no. He really hasn't broke that rule. I think he's very smart, and not a selfish player. I would probably consider a guy that would take it out when you told him not to a guy that was worried about him and me, me, me instead of we, we, we. He's a we guy, and Andre Powell does a great job as our special teams coordinator of making sure our guys are doing what they're supposed to. That's discipline, and he takes it out and gets tagged at the 15-yard line, our offensive coordinator is not going to be very happy with that drive to start.

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