Pitt Season At Crucial Point

The Pitt football team has reached a crossroad not only for this season, but the Dave Wannstedt Era when it faces Notre Dame today at 2:30 p.m. in South Bend, Ind.

Sure, neither Pittsburgh (5-2) nor the Fighting Irish (5-2) are ranked, but the game will be nationally televised and games against Notre Dame can elevate a program's status as quickly as any. It might not be right, but it's a fact.

The Panthers also need a victory to get back on track going into the homestretch for their Big East schedule, which resumes with Louisville Saturday at noon at Heinz Field. Pitt will play four straight Conference games to close out the season and determine their bowl fate.

A loss at Notre Dame won't be devastating to Pitt's Big East ranking, but it certainly will be damaging nonetheless. A win is needed, and that basically is what Wannstedt told his team this week.

"I told them we can take this thing as far as we want to take it, but (everything else) is really insignificant,'' Wannstedt said. "We're totally focused on Notre Dame and playing this game. We're trying to find a way to get win No. 6. What everybody else does or how it all plays out, there's a lot of football left.

"(This is) a big national TV game, one that we have to win to get back on the winning track, regardless of who we're playing. ... (And) we've been saying all along that it's a very even conference, with all the teams involved. The conference championship probably won't be decided until the last weekend.''

The Panthers have been at this point in recent years and have taken different paths. In 2004, Pitt shared the Big East title, went to the Fiesta Bowl and finished 8-4 overall in Walt Harris' final season. After a heartbreaking double-overtime loss at Syracuse, the Panthers reeled off wins at Notre Dame, at home to West Virginia and at South Florida to seal the BCS bid.

Conversely, two years later in Wannstedt's second season, Pitt opened with a 6-1 mark and then fell apart down the stretch in the Big East portion of the schedule. Fifth-year senior free safety Eric Thatcher remembers both seasons.

"That team that went to the Fiesta Bowl, we never quit,'' Thatcher said. "We were in some tough games, Furman, Boston College, WVU ... people just had to step up and make plays. That's what we need to do this year. We've got to find a way to win. That team found a way to win and ended up in the Fiesta Bowl.

"That team that was 6-1, then we lost five straight. Everything just went downhill. The city, the fans were all on our bandwagon, but at the end it was just us and the coaches and anybody else in the locker room. So, that's what we have to draw on as we go down the stretch this season.''

Fifth-year senior middle linebacker Scott McKillop believed that Pitt has the leadership, among its players as well as in the coaching staff, to get the Panthers back on track this week against Notre Dame. McKillop said the team is much more focused this week.

"One of the things in the Big East, a lot of teams are 5-2, and a lot of teams are within one game of each other,'' McKillop said. "So, it looks like it's going to go down to the wire with how close everybody is.

"So, we just have to take care of our business each week and not have any letdowns like we had last week. So, the last five games ... we've got to go out and bring our 'A' game every week to be successful.''

Anything less wouldn't work for Pitt, because the Big East appears to be a resurgent group. Sure, it might not show in the national rankings, but among each other each team has the ability to beat another in the Conference. No game will be easy for the Panthers from this point on.

After playing at Notre Dame, Pitt plays host to Louisville (5-2, 1-1), which is much tougher than it was a few games ago; visits Cincinnati (6-2, 2-1), which just beat South Florida; plays host to an improving West Virginia (5-2, 2-0), the Backyard Brawl is all that's necessary in that description; and caps the season at Connecticut (6-2, 2-0), which it as struggled against in recent years.

So, it all starts today for the Pitt football team, at Notre Dame Stadium, where history has been made and careers have been shaped.

"With the great tradition of Notre Dame and the great tradition of Pitt, legends are made in games like this,'' Wannstedt said. "People remember things that happened, good or bad, in games like this a lot longer than they do in others.''

That's why the Panthers need to make sure that they take the right path.

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