Pitt’s Vinopal honored after ND takeawaysPublished: 11/13/13 @ 12:00
By TIM CLEVELAND
Heading into last Saturday’s game, the 2013 season had been one of mediocrity for the University of Pittsburgh football team and junior defensive back Ray Vinopal (Cardinal Mooney).
The Panthers were 4-4 going against No. 24 Notre Dame at Heinz Field. While they had given the Fighting Irish all they could handle in a triple-overtime loss last season, not many thought the Panthers could get the job done.
Vinopal contributed more than his share as he intercepted two passes thrown by Tommy Rees and forced a fumble in Pitt’s 28-21 upset. For his efforts, Vinopal was named Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Back of the Week.
“It’s definitely special,” Vinopal said. “It was pretty cool; it was the first time I’ve ever been honored. I obviously appreciate it. I’m now kind of on the get behind me page and on the get ready for North Carolina page.”
Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst said Vinopal has been doing a great job or the team.
“I loved the way Ray has approached the whole year and the way he works,” Chryst said. “He made some big plays for us and the stripped fumble was huge.”
Vinopal made his first big play as Notre Dame drove to the Pittsburgh 6 yard line as he stripped receiver TJ Jones to keep the score tied at 7.
Early in the fourth quarter, Vinopal intercepted Reed in the end zone to prevent another score. Soon after, he picked Rees off once again, which he returned to the Irish 5 to set up the decisive touchdown.
“It was a pretty exciting game,” Vinopal said. “It was a lively crowd with a huge student section.
“Notre Dame is a very good team and they’re always very talented. It was looking like it was going their way in the first and second quarters.
“We had some miscues here and there. We were able to clean up our mistakes at halftime and make some plays in the second half of the game.”
Vinopal, a 2010 graduate of Mooney, helped lead the Cardinals to the 2009 state championship. He was named all-Northeast Ohio and all-state as a senior and initially committed to Michigan.
As a freshman with the Wolverines, Vinopal played in all 13 games and made 33 tackles, 1 Ω for loss and one interception, but he decided to transfer after that season.
“It was just Coach [Rich] Rodriguez; they let him go and things were getting shuffled around,” Vinopal said.
After sitting out 2011 due to NCAA transfer rules, Vinopal got right back on track last season with Pittsburgh. He again played in all 13 games (with one start against Youngstown State) and accumulated 14 tackles and 1 Ω sacks as the Panthers finished 6-7 including a loss to Mississippi in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
In 2013, Vinopal has 53 tackles, three interceptions and five pass break-ups.
He said the victory over Notre Dame is among the biggest he’s experienced.
“It’s got to be up there with the sweetest we’ve had,” said Vinopal, who is a business finance major. “Last year, we knocked off Rutgers to secure bowl eligibility and they were also ranked. That was also a big win.”
Chryst said Vinopal is an example of an ideal player for the program.
“I think he loves the game and he’s exactly what you want out of a teammate,” Chryst said. “I think any guy is happy when they can contribute because there is that personal part, but I think he was truly — just like a lot of our guys — just happy to contribute to a win and getting us back to winning a game. I love him.”
With Pittsburgh 5-4 and needing one more win to qualify for a bowl game, Vinopal said that is exactly the goal for him and his teammates.
“Just working each week and hopefully we can secure bowl eligibility,” he said.