The Panthers haven't arrived just yet, but as the nation's No. 8 team they're a lot closer to where Wannstedt wanted Pittsburgh to be than the first time he faced Notre Dame to open the 2005 season. That was his first year at Pitt, and it was the initial season for Irish coach Charlie Weis as well.
The two meet again when Pitt (8-1) faces Notre Dame (6-3) Saturday at 8 p.m. at Heinz Field. The game will be broadcast nationally by ABC-TV, and Panthers fifth-year senior defensive tackle Gus Mustakas has anticipated this game for a while since he played in the last game the two teams met at Heinz Field.
"Actually, that was my first game here, too,'' Mustakas said. "Those were my D-end days, when I was a bit more slender back then, but it was amazing. My freshman year, we were ranked around 22nd. College Game Day was there, and we went out to a 10-0 lead. I thought, 'Wow, we're going undefeated.'
"But things didn't turn out that way. They scored about 40 unanswered points on us (to win 42-21). So, that was quite a beginning. Other than the kickoff return, basically my first play on defense was a little screen play that they ran. The quarterback threw the ball over my head, and it went for like 70 yards.
"Fortunately, it's gotten a lot better for me and the Pitt defense since then,'' Mustakas added. "But I know it's going to be crazy again here for Notre Dame Saturday night. And we're looking forward to see all our fans cheering us on. So, it's going to be a great atmosphere and a great game to play in.''
The Notre Dame series was renewed last season, and Pitt beat the Fighting Irish 36-33 in four overtimes in South Bend, Ind. But this is a college football series that began in 1909 and has had many big games. But last season's Pitt victory was just the program's 19th in 64 games (19-44-1), and Panthers sixth-year senior middle linebacker Adam Gunn wants that success to continue.
"The Pitt-Notre Dame rivalry is big,'' Gunn said. "Coach Wannstedt always talks about tradition here, and Pitt-Notre Dame is a chance for us to represent our university and really continue our drive to the successful season that we're after. Notre Dame, that's Rudy, they are college football.
"But we are, too. We have a great football tradition here at Pitt. So, this is a big game. When you beat them, that gives you a chance to say that you beat Notre Dame that year. They are college football. They're the leaders of college football, so this is a chance for us to show that we are, too, now.''
Mustakas believed that beating the Irish was important for several reasons.
"It doesn't matter that this is a non-conference game for us, because it's Notre Dame,'' Mustakas said. "Pitt and Notre Dame have great traditions, and when I got our schedule this was a game that I circled. I remember going out there to beat them last year, but we lost my first game at Pitt to them here.
"So, I've been ready for this game all year. They really put it on us my true freshman year at Heinz Field, so with them coming here again I can't wait to get another shot at them here. (And) we'll be looking to get another W on them for the second straight season, so we're looking forward to that.''
Wannstedt noted that last year's four-overtime win probably wouldn't have an effect on this year's game because things are different for both teams now. However, a win against Notre Dame is huge no matter what.
"Notre Dame is one of those schools that has great, great, tradition, and great national tradition,'' Wannstedt said. "Maybe, the most nationally recognized team in the country. They probably are, anywhere.
"I know firsthand recruiting against them, here and when I was at USC that they can go into any state, any high school, anywhere, and they are going to be one of two or three schools recruiting a kid…whether it's California, New Jersey, or Texas. There's no other place in the country that can really do that.
"They have had great tradition,'' Wannstedt added. "Our kids are looking at this game like it's a game against a quality football team with great tradition, but no more. We know we need to line up and play well.''
The Pitt football program has come a long way since Wannstedt and Weis first matched wits during that initial 2005 game, and the two actually appear to be going in opposite directions a bit with the Panthers entrance into the top 10 and Notre Dame losing to Navy at home. One major improvement for Pitt is that the team has built much more depth than it had back then.
"We had to play some freshmen in that game,'' Wannstedt said. "I remember that Gus played. (So), we've got better depth now. That's the first thing. We thought we were a heck of a lot better than we really were.
"We found out very quickly that we had work to do. I think we had good leadership then, but we were probably just a little bit ahead of ourselves. I was trying to figure out who could do what. I was with the kids for a month.''
Gunn believed that describing the difference between the Pitt program from then to now was as easy as 1-2-3, actually, 8 and 9, the Panthers' respective rankings in the Associated Press writers' poll and USA Today coaches' poll.
"To be back into the top 10, where Pitt has lived for a long time back in the day, that says a lot about the program, where it was and what Coach has done,'' Gunn said. "I'm the biggest supporter of everything Coach Wannstedt has done here. He's had a big impact on us as individuals and as players.
"Just to see how far our program has come since Coach Wannstedt arrived has been tremendous. You can't tell the future, but I know Coach Wannstedt had a vision (for) the program. And once we all had time to buy into that vision, well, here we are. So, it's all due to the impact of Coach Wannstedt.
"(And) when you have a good team, it's because you have better individuals on that team,'' Gunn added. "You're more trustworthy, accountable and have the desire to win. That's what Coach Wannstedt has thrived on. And when you have guys willing to put it all on the line ... then, you'll have a winning team.''
Wannstedt and the Pitt coaching staff, along with the administration for staying the course, certainly deserve credit for that success. Mustakas, humility aside, believed the players should get kudos as well.
"I'm very happy for our seniors, the ones who started out here with Coach Wannstedt at Pitt,'' Mustakas said. "We had a rough start, a couple five-win seasons, 7-5 seasons, but I think we all did a great job turning things around. The coaching staff and the upperclassmen, I think we all deserve credit.
"We're a top-10 program now, and that's where we should be. Pitt should always been ranked this high, and I feel like this isn't the only year. I feel like we've built something here that can continue for a long time. We got it started, and this success is just the beginning for the Pitt football program.''
And a victory against Notre Dame would be a huge step in the right direction for the Panthers this season.
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