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As for the mystique…

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — For some of us, this wasn’t so much a road trip as it was a pilgrimage to the mecca of the college football world. For the Pitt Panthers, there has been a constant reminder that they aren’t just playing against Notre Dame but its grand tradition.

The Panthers did their best to treat the Fighting Irish with the utmost respect in interviews this week, as they were continuously asked about the mystique of playing at Notre Dame Stadium.

“I hear so much about it – Touchdown Jesus and all the tradition there at Notre Dame – so I’m kind of excited,” tailback LeSean McCoy said. “I have something to talk about with my family and friends, but other than that it’s an all-business trip.”

If that surprises anyone, it shouldn’t.

The Fighting Irish have won 11 national championships, own the second-highest winning percentage in college football, are tied with Southern Cal for most Heisman Trophy winners (seven) and have produced the most All-Americans and College Football Hall of Famers.

Yet Notre Dame hasn’t won a national championship since 1988, and hasn’t won a bowl game since 1994 – setting an NCAA record with nine consecutive bowl losses – and has an 80-56 record since ’97. The Irish don’t carry the same clout as they did two decades ago.

Especially with their opponents.

“Have you talked to any 18- to 22-year-olds lately?” Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett asked rhetorically. “I don’t know if they know what a mystique is. To them, they’ve played Notre Dame thousands of times. It’s just been on NCAA College Football, on video games.”

Not that Bennett was trying to provide bulletin-board material.

“Don’t get me wrong. You and I growing up, it was a mystique,” Bennett said. “I think (Pitt coach) Dave (Wannstedt) has done a very good job addressing it, that it’s a unique place. We have a tremendous amount of respect for them. If you went through the 119 NCAA Division I universities, they’re probably the only true ‘national’ university.”

Wannstedt has shared stories of the significance of playing at Notre Dame Stadium and the record-setting performances the Pitt-Notre Dame series has produced. Yet, he’s not sure it sets in the way it used to.

“In years past, when Notre Dame was the only game in town and they were on TV every week and people were writing about them every week, I think that they had the mystique and the publicity was probably a little bit stronger,” Wannstedt said. “I think nowadays these kids know that Notre Dame is one of the top programs in the country, but I don’t know if they look at it in the same light as they did 15 or 20 years ago.

“There’s a lot of great tradition, and I’ve been talking to some of our players about some of the great Pitt performances against Notre Dame teams, so I think there’s something from that standpoint of a mystique. But the whole national thing, I don’t know.”

Tony Dorsett shared his thoughts this week on playing against the Fighting Irish, where he produced two of his most memorable games. And he believes playing on national television raises the stakes.

“Notre Dame doesn’t sneak into town,” Dorsett said. “That’s College Football, USA. They’re on television all the time. If you want to have a good game, you want to do it against a highly visible team.”

* A highlight of this week was talking to Dorsett and Tyler Palko about their golden moments against Notre Dame.

Dorsett recalled his 303-yard game as a junior in 1975, Pitt’s first victory over the Fighting Irish in 11 games and since 1963.

Those numbers, however, don’t do justice for some Pitt fans. I received the following note from Dr. William Smith, who attended the game:

“If I remember correctly, ND came into Pittsburgh with a 6-0 record, and having the top rushing defense in the country (they had not given up 100 total rushing yards to any opponent). Pitt received the kickoff, and started somewhere around the 30 yard line. Dorsett went off-tackle for 12 yards, and was tripped up by the last defender on a diving tackle. The second rush was 60 yards to the 2-yard line. Pitt scored on the next play. Pitt kicked off, and ND was three-and-out. Pitt took over around the 35-yard line. Dorsett took the handoff to the end zone. Three carries and 140-plus yards! Near the end of the first half, Pitt had a third-and-long from their 47 yard line. ND blitzed, and Dorsett took a screen pass 53 yards for a touchdown. I believe that made the score 28-7. Tony threw the ball into the stands, and got a 15-yard penalty. Coach Majors was not happy with that, but there was less than a minute left in the half. It was truly an amazing performance.”

Dorsett’s recollection wasn’t quite as detail-oriented.

“Everything was clicking,” Dorsett said. “It was going pretty good. It was a great performance against a great defense. Notre Dame didn’t normally let anybody run for that many yards. It meant a lot to us, to take them on. They were highly ranked year in, year out. To beat them back in the day was an accomplishment.”

The next year, in the season opener at Notre Dame, Dorsett broke a 61-yard touchdown run on his first carry and finished with 180 yards.

“We knew we had to get something going at the time,” Dorsett said. “They took the opening kickoff, drove the length of the field for a touchdown and the stadium was going crazy. I got a couple good blocks, and you could just hear a hush come over the crowd. The rout was on.”

Dorsett believes he could have rushed for more, if not for a wager.

“As a matter of fact, (Pitt) coach (John) Majors had a bet with Paul Hornung that I wouldn’t rush for 200 yards or he would jump off the press box,” Dorsett said. “He didn’t want Paul Hornung to (jump), so he pulled me out in the third quarter.”

Palko led the Panthers to a 41-38 victory at Notre Dame in 2004 by throwing for a stadium-record five touchdowns. That Pitt team went on to clinch a share of the Big East Conference championship; these Panthers are likewise in position to control their own fate.

“This is a different team than what I had my sophomore year,” Palko said. “They have a decent team. They just have to show it. They have a chance to do something special.”

The Notre Dame game arrives in similar fashion, as the ’04 Pitt team was coming off a 38-31 overtime loss at Syracuse and the ’08 team is coming off a 54-34 loss to Rutgers at home.

“The biggest thing of this team is to put this last loss behind them and play the next game,” Palko said. “You can’t change anything about the past. That’s not going to fix the problem. You can’t compare years or games. You have to live in the moment.

“These guys are learning how to win football games,” Palko said. “It takes a while to learn how to become a winner. Along the way, you’re going to have trials and tribulations that will test the character of your football team. This is one of those times.”

* Another interesting storyline is the changing of the guard on Pitt’s offensive line, where senior C.J. Davis moved to center after a season-ending injury to Robb Houser. That forced fifth-year senior Dom Williams into the starting lineup.

Williams started against Notre Dame as a redshirt freshman in ’05 and is making only the third start of his career. That’s quite a turnaround for someone who wasn’t convinced he was going to play this season.

“This is my fifth year and, even coming into the season, I wasn’t sure I was going to come back just because I wasn’t sure if I was going to be good enough to play,” Williams said. “I stuck around and the opportunity has come again. That’s one of the fun things about college football, to get on the field. I played before, so I feel I do have something to offer the team.”

If nothing else, he offers experience. At 24, Williams is the Panthers’ elder statesman. So his decision wasn’t that difficult, considering it was either play football or get a job in the real world.

He is one of a handful of players who have been to Notre Dame.

“I’ve been telling them all week that going to South Bend is a crazy place, when you have 80,000 fans there,” he said. “It’s a great place to play college football. It’s one of those things you watch when you’re a kid, when you watch ‘Rudy,’ that’s a place you want to play.”

* Offensive line coach Tony Wise shared his thoughts on the offensive line shuffling, noting that although Houser’s injury “changes it dramatically,” Wise believes Davis will be fine at center.

“You put the best guy in there,” Wise said. “I know it’s an old cliché, but you truly put the best guy in there. Dom is the next in line, has played and done a good job all the way through the spring so he becomes the next guy. He’s got to work with C.J., has to get in tune with the game plan. The second-team guys don’t get a lot of work during the week, so this will be a chore for Dom. He gets a lot more snaps now than he’s used to.”

This is the first dilemma for Wise, who inherited a talented but inexperienced line that had only one player – Davis – starting at the same position as last season. A veteran NFL coach, Wise has learned to be patient with his pupils and focus on being more of a teacher than a screamer.

“Coming from my background, you have the pro guys all during the day and they’ve got to learn so much more because everything is so sophisticated,” Wise said. “Learning with these guys how limited meeting time is and they’ve got a lot of other things going on in their lives, so it’s a been a process for me to learn.

“I had to learn what they didn’t know, why they didn’t know it – obviously, some guys may have slept in a meeting and they just may not have understood it – so there’s been about two or three things: why didn’t they know it? Were they taught and didn’t understand it? Or were they just a knucklehead and not concentrating?”

Wise has made a habit of having Pitt’s offensive line backups stand on the sideline in formation while he calls out the plays before the ball is snapped and makes sure everyone knows their assignments. It’s a matter of not only giving the reserves mental reps but also of having them help the starters recognize and understand the mistakes they make in the game.

“The biggest thing I’ve noticed is the college kid, for whatever reason, doesn’t think, ‘I’m going to go into the game.’ I’m used to pro football, where you have the backup three guys – because they could play in an instant at a couple positions,” Wise said. “We stand there and watch through that. I tell them, here’s what it is and here’s what we’re looking for. I’m trying to get them educated, so they can say I’ll be looking for this before he does.”

* Bennett was asked if the Rutgers game was an anomaly or if the Scarlet Knights found vulnerability in the secondary. Either way, it’s only natural that the Panthers are preparing for the pass.

“Absolutely,” Bennett said. “They would be foolish (not to). Three of the four big plays were on first down. There’s no excuses. Rutgers came in and went totally against what they had practiced. They felt like they couldn’t run the ball and said our best chance was to isolate some guys and take shots. It proved to be a good choice for them.”

While Bennett believes the mistakes were “correctable” and “will be corrected” in time for the Notre Dame game, he called “inexcusable.”

“When you give up four plays right at 200 yards and 28 points, it kept us from, without question, having a chance to win,” Bennett said, “and that was extremely disappointing.”

And disturbing, knowing that Notre Dame and quarterback Jimmy Clausen await.

“If you watch him right now, he’s absorbing what he’s being taught,” Bennett said. “He has got a whip of an arm.”

* That Pitt is playing a non-conference game doesn’t mean the Panthers aren’t in the thick of the race in the Big East, which is wide open.

Even if Wannstedt isn’t focusing on the conference.

“Right now, we’re not concerned about the Big East or any of those things,” Wannstedt said. “We’re just focused in on what we have to try to do to get a win. The number of wins right now is not a conversation. The whole Big East thing is not a conversation. We’re just focused on Pitt, our football team and being as prepared as we can to try to go up there and win the game.”

But Pitt’s players are aware that every game is important at this point in the season, and they can determine whether they follow the path of the ’06 Panthers by starting strong only to end with a whimper. The title is for the taking, especially after Cincinnati’s win over South Florida Thursday.

“If you look at the Big East, there’s a lot of teams that are 5-2 and a lot of teams within one game of the Big East lead,” Pitt middle linebacker Scott McKillop said. “It’s going to go down to the wire. You’ve got to take care of your business each week and not have any letdowns like we did last week.”

Added McCoy: “Every game means a lot, even if it’s not a conference game. We’ve got to win because these games are getting too close and each game is (a step) closer to that championship. We can’t lose any more.”

* Finally, a Happy Birthday to my mother, Cathy, and Pitt super-fan Martha Munsch, whose only wish was for a Panthers victory, even if it comes at the expense of the Notre Dame graduates in her family.

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