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Panthers' near-miss at Notre Dame shows progress

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PITTSBURGH (AP)

(Eds: Updates with quotes, details. With AP Photos.)By WILL GRAVESAP Sports Writer

Paul Chryst isn't a believer in moral victories. He prefers the kind of triumphs that show up in the win column.

Still, the first-year Pitt coach thinks the Panthers can take something other than heartache from Saturday night's 29-26 triple-overtime loss to Notre Dame.

For long stretches Pitt - which started the season losing to Youngstown State and getting run off the field in Cincinnati - held its own and then some in one of college football's toughest environments.

Running back Ray Graham churned up yardage, the defense made big stops and the Panthers appeared to be on the cusp of their biggest win since ending West Virginia's national title hopes five years ago.

It all fell apart.

Notre Dame scored two late touchdowns and Pitt kicker Kevin Harper missed a field goal in overtime that would have won it.

Yet where Chryst sees disappointment, he also sees progress.

''I thought those guys in our locker room played for each other and put themselves out there,'' Chryst said. ''So I think every game you can learn something from and help you go forward.''

Pitt (4-5) still needs to win two of its final three games to become bowl eligible. The Panthers won't have much time to despair. They play at Connecticut on Friday night.

Chryst remains resolute his team can bounce back. Considering how far the program has come in two short months, it's hard to argue. On Labor Day weekend, the Panthers were pushed around by the Football Championship Subdivision Penguins, looking very much like a team in disarray. Three days after Halloween, the same team nearly put a major dent in Notre Dame's hopes for an unbeaten season.

''I think we can play with anybody, as long as we come ready to play,'' said Graham, who finished with 172 yards and a score against the Irish. ''One thing we do is play to our opponents' level and I think we have to just play our game every time.''

That game includes a ''go-for-it'' mentality that Pitt lacked under previous coaches such as Dave Wannstedt and to a lesser extent Todd Graham.

It's why Chryst didn't second guess himself when the Panthers got the ball back on a K'Wuan Williams interception in the end zone that protected an eight-point lead. Rather than sit on the ball to run the clock, Chryst has quarterback Tino Sunseri pass on two of Pitt's three snaps.

The plays went nowhere, but the message from the coach was simple.

''The whole mindset the whole game was to go win this thing,'' Chryst said.

Something the Panthers put themselves in prime position to do even after Notre Dame's late surge. Pitt needed a 33-yard field goal from Harper in overtime to finish off the Irish. The kicked sailed just wide.

''We had opportunities that we let slip and whenever you have a top five team like that on the ropes and you have a chance to end the game, you have to be able to take advantage of it,'' Sunseri said. ''You have to be able to end the game and not give them any chances.''

A painful lesson the Panthers hope to carry forward. It's been an uneven two months, yet Pitt remains optimistic it can finish the season with a flourish.

''All we have to do is come in every week and play like this and it will be pretty hard to beat us,'' defensive back Lafayette Pitts said. ''We can't play to our competition, we have to play like this every week.''

Tagged: Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Ray Graham, Louisiana Tech

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