Irish anything but a distraction for No. 8 Pitt
Winning probably won't substantially boost the Panthers' ranking. Losing might derail all the momentum they've spent a half-season building. It's the kind of non-conference distraction many players and coaches dislike so late in a season.
Except for this: It's Notre Dame and, for Pitt, that means it's always a big game. Couldn't be anything else.
"Notre Dame, that's Rudy, they are college football," linebacker Adam Gunn said, referring to one-time Irish walk-on player Rudy Ruettiger and the movie made about him.
Pitt (8-1) still remembers how another unranked Notre Dame team rolled into Heinz Field in 2005, ruined the nationally ranked Panthers' opener by winning 42-21 and wrecked a promising season in which Pitt would finish 5-6.
No, it's not a Big East Conference game, but yes, it's a big game for Pitt, which is 19-44-1 in school history against Notre Dame.
"I've been ready for this game all year," defensive lineman Gus Mustakas said. "They really put it to us my freshman year at Heinz Field. I can't wait to get another shot at them. ... It doesn't matter that this is a non-conference game for us, because it's Notre Dame. Pitt and Notre Dame have great traditions, and when I got our schedule this was a game that I circled."
Older Pitt fans remember how the Fighting Irish, also unranked, upset Dan Marino's previously undefeated senior season team in 1982 that had been ranked No. 1, starting the Panthers on a slide that led to three losses in five games.
Notre Dame (6-3) has long recruited in western Pennsylvania - a quarterback named Joe Montana was among those signees - and Pittsburgh radio station KQV has carried Fighting Irish games for more than 30 years. Some Pittsburgh sporting goods stores seemingly sell nothing but Pitt, Penn State and Notre Dame apparel.
"Yes, this is a big game, a statement game for us," said quarterback Bill Stull, who missed Pitt's 36-33, four-overtime win at Notre Dame last season with an injury. "It really doesn't have anything to do with us in the Big East, but we definitely can get the spotlight on us if we play to the best of our ability and come out with the win."
Nearly every Pitt player knows someone who plays at Notre Dame or was recruited by the Irish. Some were recruited by Notre Dame themselves. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt went down the Irish's depth chart this week, and was impressed by how many five-star recruits or potential first-round draft picks they have.
"I know firsthand, from recruiting here and at Southern Cal, 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," Wannstedt said. "Whether it's California, New Jersey or Texas. There's no other place in the country that can really do that."
Notre Dame's upset loss to Navy last weekend probably won't help Pitt, as the Irish now have a season to salvage. Beating Pitt would help a lot; the Irish have lost their last seven games to Top 10 schools, matching the longest such streak in school history.
"It's Notre Dame with (quarterback) Jimmy Clausen and all their great players coming to town," Gunn said. "We have to be ready for everything that comes with playing Notre Dame."