"There's a bunch of us who know this place pretty well," said Panthers fifth-year senior defensive back Andrew Taglianetti after practice Thursday at Hoover High School. "We know the names of some of the restaurants, and we know the names of some of the locals as well."
One group of people they don't know all that well is the Ole Miss Rebels. But they've been trying to learn about them since Dec. 2, 2012. It's been more than a month since the announcement that Pitt would return for a third straight BBVA Compass Bowl, and that same length of time they've known their opponent would be the team from Mississippi's flagship university.
"We played Kentucky two years ago, a team from the SEC, and then we played SMU with (Coach) June Jones," Taglianetti said. "Now we're playing another SEC team, Ole Miss, and I think it's exciting. You always look for good competition, and a school from the SEC should definitely bring that to the forefront."
What Stands Out About The Rebels?
Speed. That was the overriding word used most often by Panthers players to describe the Ole Miss Rebels.
"They're a real explosive running team," said junior defensive lineman Aaron Donald. "They've got some fast backs and a quarterback that can run, too. So we've got to try to contain those guys."
Donald compared the Rebels to South Florida when it comes to speed and playmakers. Taglianetti agreed with his assessment of the Rebels' personnel.
"They have a lot of speed, a lot of good athletes," Taglianetti said. "They've played good teams every week. So we have to bring our best for sure to combat that. We know it's going to be a tough game, a physical game. I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be real exciting."
Junior cornerback K'Waun Williams said the Rebels' offense impresses him.
"They're good. Very fast. Athletic," he said. "Their quarterback is pretty good when he gets outside the pocket. He can make things happen. Their receivers are all good. They're going to pose a lot of things for us to contain them. They spread the ball out. I just have to stay with my guy the whole time. Overall they have more team speed (than they've seen all season)."
First-year Pittsburgh head coach Paul Chryst said he can tell Ole Miss has improved since the early part of the season.
"They're a team that's gotten better as the season has gone on," he said. "In all three phases they've got guys we certainly believe we have to account for and can be matchup problems. We're trying to make sure we've got answers for them.
"They're a team that plays extremely hard," Chryst continued. "It's one of those that it didn't take long when you put on the tape it grabs your attention. It's helped our preparation in the sense that you've got to be locked in."
Thanks For Sticking Around, Coach
As for the Panthers, they are glad to have a coach that isn't leaving them. Or being replaced. Two years ago, Dave Wannstedt was head coach of a Big East co-champion Pitt team, but he was let go at the end of the regular season. Interim coach Phil Bennett led Pitt to a 27-10 win against Kentucky in this bowl game.
Last season Todd Graham bolted for Arizona State following a 6-6 season. Keith Patterson was the interim Pitt coach for the 28-6 loss to SMU in Birmingham.
The Pitt community was a bit concerned when the Wisconsin job came open last month as Bret Bielema left for Arkansas. Chryst had been at Wisconsin as an assistant prior to coming to Pittsburgh. But he removed his name from consideration and devoted his energies to resurrecting a Pittsburgh program that has on its resume' nine national championships.
One thing Chryst has done for sure is work the Panthers like they hadn't been worked before heading into a bowl game.
"We're working hard for this game," Donald said. "We're in full pads this time. We're hitting. Last year we were just in jerseys and helmets. There's more intensity."
It's part of Chryst's gameplan, which he basically downplayed with the media Thursday afternoon.
"It's been a walk in the park," Chryst smiled and said.
"It hasn't been a perfect week, but I like the way the guys have approached it," Chryst continued. "You'd like to think we're kind of doing it like you should."
Players said it was different this year, however, than the last couple of years.
"It's hard. Full contact," Williams said. "Full pads. Tough. It definitely keeps us in game shape, keeps our tackling on point, and keeps us physical every day."
"This year it's more business," Taglianetti said. "I think we're really down here to win this year. Not saying we weren't last year, but our approach is a lot different. Hopefully we'll have a lot different result."
One More For A Winning Season
Chryst has watched his 6-6 Panthers team continue to progress this season. But unlike 6-6 Ole Miss that he believes got better with each passing week, he doesn't necessarily feel that way about his own club.
"Ours has been so up and down," he said. "But sometimes when it's you, it's hard to see the forest for the trees."
But he knows how badly his program would like to have a winning season, especially for the seniors as well as the returning players.
Taglianetti said he knows both Pitt and Ole Miss want that "winning" season of 7-6. A win does that for either Saturday. Last year's loss to SMU meant a 6-7 season for Pitt.
"It's just that 6-7 is a lot different than 7-6," Taglianetti said. "Not only for me as a senior and that it'd be great to go out with a win, but it would give these younger guys a lot of confidence and a lot of good feelings going into next year. As a future season ticket holder, I'm really excited for the future of this team. I believe Coach Chryst is going to be really successful."
The Panthers were 0-2 after losses to Youngstown State and Cincinnati. The third game they beat Virginia Tech and later took Notre Dame to three overtimes on the road before losing.
"We started off slow (this season) but came back strong," Donald said. "We finished real strong and we're very confident going into this last game. I feel like we're going to come away with a win."
And then head off to the ACC from the Big East for next year, which means they likely won't return to Legion Field for postseason football following the 2013 season.
Then again, they've been here for three straight years. So time, and tie-ins, will tell.