All that changes when No. 20 Pittsburgh (7-2, 3-1) faces the No. 19 Bearcats (8-2, 4-1) for the driver's seat in the Conference, as well as the gaudy River City Rivalry trophy, Saturday at 7:15 p.m. at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio. The game will be televised nationally by ESPN 2.
"That's exciting, and it's going to be a real challenge for us,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said Monday during his weekly press conference. "But we'll be ready for it. Emotion will not be a problem. We understand that, but I think the key is to focus our energy and our attention on what can win the game for us and not on things that will have no bearing on the outcome.
"We practiced (Sunday) night, and it was very businesslike. We talked about (the game's stature) for about five minutes, and we moved on. So, it'll happen naturally. It's a night game, so we'll have all day Saturday.
"It's not like we're going to wake up Saturday and it'll be on us,'' Wannstedt added. "So, we (won't) have to be in the right frame of mind Friday night. We're going to have some time Saturday, so ... we're going to build this thing up one day at a time.''
Pitt is 7-0 all-time against Cincinnati, including a 3-0 mark in Big East play the past three seasons. The Panthers pulled away at the end during the opening two games, but last year's was close throughout. Pitt trailed 17-13 after three quarters, but scored 11 fourth-quarter points to seal the win.
"I think that when there's something riding on the game and there's been some good games back and forth,'' Wannstedt said, "it's great. ... Every year the games have been very competitive and very close. (And) I would expect it to be the same way this week.''
Wannstedt noted that the River City Rivalry trophy will be displayed in Pitt's locker room all week as a visual reminder for what's at stake in this game. Truthfully, though, nothing needs to be explained to the Panthers.
"The tradition with us and Cincinnati isn't there like it is with us and West Virginia, but it is now (with) what's at stake in this game,'' middle linebacker Scott McKillop said. "The River City Rivalry, the trophy, it means a lot. We're 3-0 against Cincinnati in Big East play, and I'm sure they're looking forward to that first victory against us.
"They've shown that they're a great team this year, and we know what they're capable of on offense, defense and special teams. So, our preparation is very important this week. ... This probably is Cincinnati's biggest game at home in a while, and they control their own destiny. So, they have a lot of motivation.
"And anytime you have a rivalry, it means a lot, but there's a lot more at stake with this game ... and it's a little more special,'' McKillop added. "It's going to be a great atmosphere down there in Cincinnati, a hostile environment and a lot of noise, and I'm looking forward to it. It's a real big game for us.''
McKillop noted that the fifth-year seniors on this Pitt squad, like he and safety Eric Thatcher, were true freshmen on the Panthers' last Big East champion football team. Pitt shared the Conference title in 2004 and received the BCS bowl slot, and that class would like to leave school the same way it came in.
"This year,'' McKillop said, "we have a great opportunity ... to leave Pitt the same way that we came in here. We came in on a high note, and it's very important to leave on a high note.''
Thatcher, a Cincinnati native, is well aware of the Bearcats' football program. Just a decade ago, they had a two-win season, and two decades ago tallied consecutive one-win campaigns. The more recent history is a bit more solid.
Cincinnati was 10-3 with a bowl victory last season and 8-5 with a bowl win in 2006. But there were only two eight-win seasons during the previous 30 years (1993 and '97).
"Never would I have thought that I'd be going back to Cincinnati and for the magnitude to be so high,'' Thatcher said. "I'm excited about it. I can't wait to get home and to play in front of the fans and my family.
"We definitely can't take them lightly. It's a big game for them, and it's a big game for us, too. Them not beating us in a while, that probably will make them play all that much harder this week. So, we've just got to go out and play our game and just stay focused.
"It's just exciting,'' Thatcher added. "You kind of dream about this when you're a kid, playing in a big-time game for a championship. So, we want to go out and have a strong effort and come up with a good game.''
And possibly make this River City Rivalry game one for the ages.
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