If No. 23 Pittsburgh (8-3, 4-2) wins against Connecticut (7-4, 3-3) Saturday at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn., the Panthers will have nine regular-season wins for the first time since 1982. Walt Harris' 2002 squad went 9-4 overall, including a win against Oregon State in the Insight Bowl, after losing its final two regular-season games at Miami and at home to West Virginia.
The 1982 team, under Serafino "Foge'' Fazio in quarterback Dan Marino's last season, finished 9-3 overall with a loss to SMU and the Pony Express in the Cotton Bowl. The Panthers also lost their regular-season finale at Penn State. If this Pitt team can go 9-3 in the regular season that also could enhance their bowl situation, which isn't officially set.
"There are so many things to consider with the whole Big East playing this weekend,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said Monday during his weekly press conference. "Nothing will be determined until Saturday night or Sunday. (So), No. 1, (Connecticut) beat us the last couple of years.
"No. 2, and maybe it might even be more important, our guys would like to end up with nine wins. That hasn't been done around here in over a quarter-century. That would be a nice thing for this football team to accomplish. So, that's kind of our focus more than what bowl, because we have no clue.''
Fifth-year senior middle linebacker Scott McKillop noted that Pitt's bowl destination, for the most part, just isn't discussed that much in the locker room. And since the only thing the Panthers can control is their game against UConn, that's their focus this week.
However, as he has done since returning to his alma mater nearly four years ago, Wannstedt has talked about Pitt's tradition. And beating UConn for the team's ninth regular-season win would be quite an accomplishment.
"That's very special,'' McKillop said. "Coach Wannstedt has stressed to the seniors that our class can be responsible for taking Pitt back to where we want it to be. This year, we weren't able to win the Big East, but there's nothing we can do about it now. So, we have to move on to our other goals. We want to finish strong and win nine regular-season games.''
Junior tight end Nate Byham agreed with McKillop, that Pitt's bowl destination really isn't under the team's control. However, turning around the program this season has been a direct result of performances by the Panthers' upperclassmen, and that is something that should be relished.
"It's one of the reasons I came here,'' Byham said. "I wanted to known for being one of the guys who helped turn this program around and get it back to where it needed to be. ... This season is very special to us for that, and we can become the first Pitt team in 26 years to win nine games in the regular season.
"I'm very happy about that. It's a great feeling, and that's why we're not concerned about the bowls. Our only focus is UConn and getting that ninth win. Everything else will take care of itself if we take care of business at UConn.''
While Pitt finished strong last season, which was capped by its stunning 13-9 win at WVU, this season has been a complete turnaround for several reasons. McKillop outlined them.
"We've been able to have some success on the road, and I don't think we had more than one road win last season (only WVU),'' McKillop said. "We've been able to finish and won some close games with five fourth-quarter comebacks.
"We've also gotten some breaks this year that went against us last year. ... We're just playing better as a team and executing better, and Coach Wannstedt has brought in some talent to help us during practice and in the games.''
Pitt strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris and assistant James Smith have been credited for increasing the Panthers abilities in their specialties, but the affect has not been evident until this season.
"Last year, we got a glimpse of how much our improved strength and conditioning has helped us,'' McKillop said. "But this year, there's a big difference. We got over the hump and have been able to finish games. We have five fourth-quarter comebacks, so we're a better-conditioned team in the fourth quarter.
"With how close the Big East teams are this season, you have to play four quarters to win the games. And that's to our benefit. Against Notre Dame, we went four overtimes. Buddy and James have worked us hard all year, but they've told us that there's going to be certain times when our body will want to quit.
"But our minds are way more stronger than our bodies,'' McKillop added, "so we have to tell ourselves that we can do it. And we help each other to keep our spirits up. That really helps in the fourth quarter in a big game.''
Both McKillop and Byham are perfect examples of what Morris and his staff can accomplish. Byham, in particular, has packed on muscle the past two seasons. He went from being a skinny freshman to a solid 6-foot-3, 260-pound plow-horse at tight end.
"Our strength and conditioning program is great, and we've made monumental strides since I've been here,'' Byham said. "Everybody has been training harder, and we're in great shape this year in particular. Also, our leadership and the camaraderie we have, it's like a family, and we never get down on ourselves.
"Last year, there were so many games that we lost that were close in the fourth quarter, but we just couldn't finish. This year, we're winning those games. We believe in each other and believe that we can come back in the end. We're not just a one-person team. We have 11 guys working together, and when that happens nobody is going to be able to hold us back.''
And if it happens this week at Connecticut, the Panthers will reach a plateau that the Pitt football program hasn't achieved since 1982.
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