There are many reasons Pitt should keep its expectations low for Saturday heading into Notre Dame Stadium.
The No. 3 Irish are undefeated, and even the biggest Notre Dame skeptic would admit they are legitimate national-championship contenders. Pitt, meanwhile, is coming off a big win against Temple, but hasn't shown the consistency week-to-week that first-year coach Paul Chryst preaches.
Based on that, it might even be reasonable to predict a Notre Dame blowout. Recent history suggests otherwise.
Even though Notre Dame leads the overall series, 46-20-1, the Panthers and Irish have split their past six games, and only one has been decided by more than one score.
"I think those guys respect us, and we respect them," Pitt fifth-year senior quarterback Tino Sunseri said. "It's always a great football game, they're always first-class people. After the game, you're always talking to them, and they're saying it's one of their tougher games."
Perhaps even more impressive is that Pitt has won two of its previous three trips to Notre Dame.
In 2004, Tyler Palko became the first quarterback to throw for five touchdown passes in the stadium as Pitt won, 41-38, on Josh Cummings' last-second field goal. It was the Panthers' first win against the Irish since the final game in Pitt Stadium in 1999.
Much like this year, that Pitt team had shown flashes of potential, but was 5-3 heading into the game. After beating the Irish, Pitt also won its final two games to clinch the Big East Conference title and a Bowl Championship Series game bid.
It was four years before Pitt returned to Indiana, but the '08 trip might have been more memorable.
Running back LeSean McCoy tore up the Irish defense for 169 yards, and quarterback Pat Bostick made enough plays to keep the Panthers close most of the way. With 2:22 left, Bostick found receiver Jonathan Baldwin for a tying, 10-yard touchdown pass, and Pitt eventually won, 36-33, in four overtimes.
"It was just a hard-fought game," Bostick said. "It wasn't always pretty. It was kind of ugly, actually. A lot of mistakes being made, but it was one of those days where you just kept fighting, kept grinding, no quit."
The teams went into overtime, then another, then another, then another. Finally, in the fourth overtime, Notre Dame kicker Brandon Walker missed a 38-yardfield-goal attempt, and Pitt's Conor Lee nailed his 22-yard field goal to give the Panthers the win in the longest game played in the 78-year history of Notre Dame Stadium.
"There's going to be ups and downs, the crowd's going to go nuts for them. They're going to be in it the whole game, and it's going to come down to the fourth quarter," Bostick said. "In this case, it came down to the fourth overtime."
Even in '10, the visiting Panthers played the Irish close. Despite being just 2-2 with wins against New Hampshire and Florida International, Pitt lost, 23-17, and had a chance to win in the fourth quarter.
"The atmosphere was awesome," Sunseri said. "They're a very classy crowd but they do get noisy when they need to.
"Players feed too much into the Notre Dame aura. They need to go in and understand we need to execute and we have a job to do. We're playing another football game."
The Panthers' rivalry with Notre Dame might not be the same as it was in its heyday in the 1970s, but the current Pitt players appreciate the opportunity ahead of them.
"I think it's a pretty big rivalry game," center Ryan Turnley said "Since I've been here, there's been some great games. We're really looking forward to this, I'm sure they are, too."
The series will take on a new look soon when Pitt moves to the Atlantic Coast Conference and Notre Dame begins playing a regular ACC rotation.
The schools had a scheduling agreement through '16, but with Notre Dame's announcement that it would play five ACC teams a year (likely starting in '14), that got thrown out. Now, Pitt will go into a rotation with the rest of the ACC teams.
"We'll go into the cycle with everybody else," Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson said. "I think that's part of conference membership, but the conference has been really good about working with us."
The days of the annual games left between the Irish and Panthers seem numbered, but, if the past few are any indication, they should be good ones.