When the Pitt players and coaches speak about the game at Notre Dame today, one word seems to be the consistent theme: Opportunity.
The Panthers have a significant opportunity in South Bend today, not just to take a step toward a winning season and a bowl bid, but to make national headlines by ending No. 4 Notre Dame's undefeated season.
They'll be helped by the presence of running back Ray Graham, wide receiver Devin Street and cornerback Lafayette Pitts, who will be with the team after police filed charges of simple assault and conspiracy against each late Thursday night.
The charges stem from an incident Oct. 21 in Oakland, and the players were to be notified of the charges by mail. A university spokesman said the three have denied any involvement and are willing to cooperate with the police. All three are active and will play against the Irish.
- Matchup: Pitt (4-4, 1-3 Big East) at Notre Dame (8-0), 3:30 p.m. today, Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame, Ind. Notre Dame is favored by 17.
- TV, Radio: WPXI, KDKA-FM (93.7)
- Pitt: Coming off a 47-17 win against Temple. ??? Has won two of its past three games at Notre Dame Stadium, with wins in 2004 and ???08. In ???10, it lost by six. ??? QB Tino Sunseri leads the Big East in passing efficiency with a 164.8 rating, eighth in Division I-A. ??? Rushing attack got back on track with 207 yards on the ground against Temple. ??? Is 3-3 in its past six meetings with Notre Dame, and the past four have been decided by one score or fewer. ??? WR Devin Street leads the Big East in receptions per game (6.25) and receiving yards per game (86.88).
- Notre Dame: Coming off a 30-13 win at Oklahoma. ??? Ranks second in Division I-A in scoring defense, allowing 9.88 points per game. Trail only No. 1 Alabama. ??? Allowed its first rushing touchdown of the season last week against the Sooners. ??? Senior linebacker Manti Te???o leads the defense with 80 total tackles and five interceptions. ??? Leads the overall series against Pitt, 46-20-1. ??? Head coach Brian Kelly is 4-1 all-time against Pitt, including his time at Cincinnati.
- Hidden stat: Notre Dame ranks 113th in Division I-A in punt returns (2.83 yards per return). Pitt ranks 110th in net punting (33.55 yards per punt.
Even with them, Pitt (4-4, 1-3 Big East) will be a significant underdog this afternoon. Behind a dominant defense, Notre Dame (8-0) has exceeded expectations and is in national championship contention.
"What it takes to beat Notre Dame is the same thing it takes to beat other teams on your schedule," Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. "That's playing good football, playing the best you can be, taking advantage when opportunities come your way, not shooting yourselves in the foot. All those same things apply."
Pitt likely will be breaking in two first-time starters today. Arthur Doakes is expected to take over for Ryan Schlieper at right guard, and Joe Trebitz likely will replace Dan Mason at middle linebacker. Schlieper and Mason were lost for the season in last week's win against Temple.
Taking after his coach, center Ryan Turnley said the most important thing today would be focusing on each play, rather than the big-picture scenario of playing a top-5 team.
"As an away team going in, you have to play a clean game, no penalties, no negative yardage plays," Turnley said. "With the crowd noise and everything like that, everyone just has to focus a little bit more in road games. Their atmosphere is something special."
Despite all the emotions of playing a top-5 team in one of college football's most historic stadiums, Turnley also said it's important to stay cool under the pressure.
"You've got to be thinking always, you've got to be looking for what they're trying to do," he said. "You can't be just too emotional about it, you've got to be calm and collected and make sure everyone's getting where they're supposed to be."
Historically, the Panthers are no strangers to pulling off upsets in tough environments.
The most recent time Pitt faced a team ranked in the top four of the AP poll was Dec. 1, 2007, when the Panthers, who were 4-7, knocked off previously undefeated West Virginia, 13-9, in Morgantown and cost the Mountaineers a trip to the BCS title game.
Pat Bostick, Pitt's quarterback that season, said taking small-scale approach was critical when playing on a big stage.
"You have to go in with the mindset that you're going to focus on every single play, one at a time, and with the belief that you're going to have a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter," Bostick said. "Because a team like that, they're not going to give you much.
"Any opportunity you have, you have to squeeze the most out of it."
If Pitt is able to upset the Irish today, it would mean the Panthers need just one more win to become bowl-eligible in Chryst's first season at the helm. After the disastrous 0-2 start, including the loss to I-AA Youngstown State, it would be an impressive turnaround.
In the grander scheme, a win today would garner significant national attention and join "13-9" in the major upsets in Pitt's history.
"This is just one of those times, this is why you come to a place like Pitt," Bostick said.
"To play in a game like this. That's why you sign to come here."
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.