The Notre Dame Mystique

Former Notre Dame coach turned ESPN analyst Lou Holtz ranted incessantly about the spirit surrounding the Fighting Irish and how it would be a factor in a win against the Pitt football team this week.

Former Pittsburgh Outland Trophy winner Mark May, Holtz's ESPN colleague, stated the Panthers' case for victory when Pitt (5-2) takes on Notre Dame (5-2) Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in South Bend, Ind.

But the best quote about the Golden Domers' mystique came from former Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko. "That's for the birds, bro,'' Palko said when asked if that would affect how the Panthers played, and he backed that up with a five-touchdown, expletive-capped performance that will live long in Pitt lore.

"They have that fixed, now, don't they?'' Palko said, referring to the seven-second delay used on NBC-TV broadcasts that would have kept his f-bomb from being heard during a post-game interview. Palko was still pumped that he threw an ND Stadium-record five touchdown passes to beat the Irish in 2004.

That was Pitt's last trip to South Bend, Ind. and among the most-memorable performances there for the Panthers. But Pitt has won just 18 games and tied one in 63 overall matchups against the Irish and has won just three times at Notre Dame since the 1976 national championship season.

The Panthers have a handful of fifth-year seniors who made that trip to Notre Dame for the Palko-led victory in 2004, but they all were true freshman. Only Derek Kinder saw action, but he didn't let any Irish spirit affect his play. Kinder caught one of Palko's five TD passes to key a Pitt comeback.

"It definitely was a great thing to be involved with a performance like that, and I was glad to be a part of it,'' Kinder said. "It was a good crowd, from what I remember, and it definitely was a great atmosphere. It was packed, like it always is, so we're definitely going into a hostile environment.

"Sure, you can talk about the atmosphere there. It's always in the back of our heads to go to Notre Dame and the great tradition there, all the great players and things like that. But once the game starts, all that goes away, and you just line up and play against your opponent. And we'll be ready for that.''

Fifth-year senior middle linebacker Scott McKillop got to experience the 2004 game at Notre Dame, his first big road trip at Pitt, and is hopeful that the Panthers can repeat a winning performance. there.

"Sure, we know it's a great atmosphere at Notre Dame, and it's going to be a great experience,'' McKillop said. "But after what happened to us last week, regardless of who we're playing, we're amped up and excited to get back on the field and play another game. So, this Saturday can't come any quicker.

"To play a good team on national television, it's going to be a great game. I was out there as a true freshman, and I was fortunate to be exposed to everything -- Touchdown Jesus, the crowd, everything -- and as a true freshman, I guess it was like it was a vacation. But it's different now. I'm going out there to do a job this time, and I'm taking it seriously.''

Fifth-year senior guard Dominic Williams also made that trip to South Bend in 2004, and he even started against the Irish in Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt's first game back with his alma mater in 2005 at Heinz Field. That didn't go so well, so Williams wants to get a little payback for the Panthers.

"I didn't play the last time out there,'' Williams said. "It was a good experience, though, and I'm glad I get a chance to go out there and play in this game in South Bend. ... I've been telling the guys all week that it's a great place to play a game, 80,000 fans out there. It's a place you always want to go to play.

That's especially true after watching Rudy as a kid, so I'm glad to get a chance to play out there. ... But it's also a business trip for us. We're going out there to play a football game, and we're going out there to win it, especially after what happened the last time we played them here and after our game last week.''

Fifth-year senior safety Eric Thatcher also made that trip to Notre Dame in 2004 and remembered that the fans are close to the field, "practically in the huddle with us on the sideline,'' he said. But Thatcher also believed that the Panthers wouldn't get caught up in all the hoopla surrounding the game.

Wannstedt, as a coach and Pitt player, offensive line coach Tony Wise and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett all have been involved with the Notre Dame experience, and Bennett probably summarized it the best.

"After playing there and coaching there, an 18-year-old player, I really don't think they know what a mystique is,'' Bennett said. "To them, they've played Notre Dame thousands of times. It's just been on NCAA College Football, on video games. Don't get me wrong, I know there was a mystique when guys like me were growing up, but it's different now.

"It's a unique place, and we have a tremendous amount of respect for them. Of the 119 D-I universities, they're truly the only national university. We've seen them play at North Carolina and other places, and we're wondering where they're playing (big ND following). So, we feel this is a big marquee game, national TV and everything else, but we'll have our guys ready.''

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