Pittsburgh, which is 7-1 overall and off to its best start since 1982, also is 4-0 in the Big East and controls its own destiny as far as the Conference championship is concerned. But it won't be easy for the Panthers, who are coming off a bye week after rolling to four straight victories.
Pitt faces Syracuse (3-5, 0-3) in a Big East matchup Saturday at noon at Heinz Field, but Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt doesn't believe any momentum was lost during the time off.
"We had good meetings and a good spirited practice (Sunday night) and kind of got back into the routine again,'' Wannstedt said. "That's always a conversation piece when you're coming off the bye week, (but) we practiced last night, and we looked fast last night.
"We were well-rested, and our guys were moving around. I think there's a little bit of a trade-off (with a bye week). As long as our guys' minds are where they're supposed to be and we approach it in the right way, I'm confident that we will continue to move forward.''
Even though the Orange, which reportedly lost its best player when wideout Mike Williams quite the team this week, appears to be the weakest among the final four -- Wannstedt noted that it's not a trap game because the players won't let it be one. They aren't close to looking ahead to Notre Dame.
"We have a big conference game, and we need every ounce of focus and energy for this week,'' Wannstedt said. "Then, we'll just take the next one and continue after that. That's kind of been our mindset. I think that's the type of football team that we are, from being able to handle things and prepare the best way and deal with them (as they come up each week).''
For a defensive lineman like fifth-year senior Gus Mustakas, the bye week couldn't have come at a better time in the season.
"It was great, basically having the week off, and I don't think it could have been placed in a better spot for us,'' Mustakas said. "We have four more games remaining this season, and we're recharged and ready to go. We got some work in against ourselves, first team against first team, and we worked against the Scout Team on Syracuse stuff a little bit. So, we're ahead in that respect.
"But just having Friday and Saturday off, those couple days, the body feels so much better after that. We had a good week, but we came back Sunday night and had a good workout. So, I don't think we lost any momentum. ... I think we'll have another great practice week going into the Syracuse game. This is the first game of the homestretch for us, and we have to be ready for it.''
While this homestretch might appear to be daunting for Pitt, Mustakas believed that the team's approach all season should pay off the most this week.
"With the games we have coming up, we can't take a week off or take anything for granted,'' Mustakas said. "Syracuse is a Big East game, and all those are important. Notre Dame, it's always a big game. And it should be a sellout at home. That should be a great game. Then, we're at West Virginia.
"They're our biggest rival, and we beat them the past two years. So, they definitely want to get us back. And then, we're at home with Cincinnati to close out the season. They're one of the best teams in the country, and that could be the Big East title game. So, we have a tough homestretch, but it all starts with Syracuse. And we can't look past them, because they're always tough.''
Senior tight end Nate Byham was equally as positive.
"If anything, I think we had a lot more energy than usual (Sunday) night because of the two days off,'' Byham said. "Our legs felt good, and we went though a very spirited practice. You can get into a bit of a rut at this point in the season, especially the younger guys who don't know it's such a long season, because they're not used to it. But this helped them out.
"It's all business from here on out, and we're ready to go. We already got back to work on Syracuse a little bit last week, and after (Sunday) night we have half our game plan in for them. So, when we get started again (Tuesday) we'll have more time to break down film and sharpen things up. I expect a good practice week ahead, and then we'll be ready to go for Syracuse.''
Sixth-year senior middle linebacker Adam Gunn was just glad to get a couple days rest to prepare for the physical matchup that Syracuse will provide.
"It felt good to get a couple days off, and I think (Sunday) night's practice might have been one of our best this season,'' Gunn said. "It was physical and a very high-tempo practice, and that's exactly what we needed going into this week against Syracuse. So, the bye week came at a perfect time.
"But now we're back on course for Syracuse. We got some work in on them last week, and I know they're going to play us tough. We face four passing teams to close out the season, and that should help our preparation. (But) we're mostly excited about the challenges that we're facing, and Syracuse is up first.
"They're a team that's a lot better than their record shows,'' Gunn added. "A win against Pitt definitely would make their season, so we're not going to give them a chance to ruin our season or spark theirs. We want to be Big East champs, but we have to get past Syracuse to stay on track for that.''
And if the Panthers can get their momentum going again, there's no reason to believe their season will be derailed.
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