Pitt Needs This One

The Pitt football team has been here before, a big game on a national state, but the Panthers have not come through.

In the Dave Wannstedt era alone, it has happened several times, like his debut against Notre Dame at Pittsburgh in 2005 at home and in the season finale at West Virginia. In 2006, pick an opponent among the final five, all losses after a 6-1 start. And in 2007, there were key road losses to Michigan State, Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers to go with home defeats to Navy and South Florida.

The most memorable victory in recent years was a 13-9 decision to cap 2007 at WVU, but the interest that win stirred for 2008 took a shot with an opening home loss to Bowling Green. Another home loss to Rutgers and defeat at Cincinnati, which determined the Big East champion, scuttled a fairly successful season. Pitt's first postseason game under Wannstedt ended in a loss as well.

The Panthers are ranked as high as No. 8 after five straight wins and an 8-1 start, but a three-game closing stretch -- beginning with Notre Dame (6-3) Saturday night at 8 at Heinz Field -- will make or break the season. The stage is as big as it gets, a game against the Irish, SRO home crowd and national TV.

Several Pitt players, including Bishop McDevitt grad Aaron Berry -- a Pitt senior cornerback -- called this matchup with Notre Dame a statement game. And who could disagree? At least it's a chance for Pitt to make a statement, that the Panthers deserve a lofty national ranking and the Big East Conference is ready for Prime Time as well. And it doesn't matter that Notre Dame just lost to Navy. The Irish football program operates on a national basis with alumni everywhere, and a win against Notre Dame carries tons of weight.

But it won't be easy for Pitt, especially with the way that the Panthers were torched in two early games at Buffalo and at North Carolina State. The Pitt coaches have called the Irish passing game the nation's best with quarterback Jimmy Clausen and wideouts Golden Tate and Michael Floyd. The Panthers got a break with tight end Kyle Rudolph's injury, which should keep him out of Saturday's game, but the Irish are still quite potent.

They'll move the ball on Pitt. There's no doubt, but the Panthers can keep them out of the end zone. Another factor comes into play, however. Even if Notre Dame gets a couple scores on Pitt, it still shouldn't be a blowout. The Panthers' offense is too good for that, much better than it's been in recent years.

Quarterback Bill Stull, wideout Jonathan Baldwin, tight end Dorin Dickerson and running back Dion Lewis are having amazing seasons and make Pitt incredibly explosive on offense. The Panthers should be able to match the Irish blow for blow on offense, and they certainly have a better defense.

It doesn't hurt that the game is at Heinz Field, which will be rocking like a Steelers playoff game. The Pitt students and followers have not an opportunity like this, probably since the debut for Wannstedt and Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis in 2005. The programs appear to be headed in different directions right now, and the Panthers can do a lot to maintain that pace with a win.

A loss won't necessarily be devastating to Pitt's bowl hopes, because the Panthers can still win the Big East with wins against West Virginia and Cincinnati in their final two games. In fact, if Cincy beats WVU tonight, Pitt's game in Morgantown, W.Va. the day after Thanksgiving would be moot as well. Only a win Dec. 5 against the Bearcats would be needed for the Panthers to claim the Big East title.

But the Pitt coaching staff certainly hasn't approached the Notre Dame game that way, and the Panthers aren't looking at it that way, either. They want to win, and they want to beat the Irish badly.

And despite those aforementioned foul-ups by previous Wannstedt teams, this should be the year for Pitt. Everything is in place for a big season with a stifling defense, big-play offense and solid special teams. The Panthers appear to be as good as anybody in the country, and they're on a roll with five straight wins.

That streak should continue against Notre Dame and set up regular-season finales with WVU and Cincinnati to determine the Big East title.

The Pitt players are poised to take the next step. The only thing that can hold them back is if the coaching staff plays it too close to the vest and doesn't open it up. That won't cut it against the Irish or in the final two games, either.

For the Panthers to take their program to the next level, they need to perform the way they have all season. Run the ball hard, throw it successfully, take shots downfield when the opportunities are there and don't play it safe.

Pitt's in Prime Time now, and the Panthers are primed to take the next step. The Irish should be no more than a bump on the way there.

Pitt 38, Notre Dame 24

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