The message emanating from the South Side practice facility this week has been clear.
The 2012 game against Notre Dame — a heartbreaking triple-overtime defeat at Notre Dame Stadium — is in the past, and will have no bearing on Pitt’s game tonight at Heinz Field.
In that game, the Panthers led for nearly the entire way against the undefeated Irish, but lost their lead in the fourth quarter. A potential winning field goal in double-overtime sailed wide right, and the Irish escaped with a 29-26 win en route to an appearance in the Bowl Championship Series national title game.
Those teams are both gone, replaced by new rosters with many different players. The 2012 game, though, might not be entirely forgotten.
“It was pretty awesome,” Pitt tight end J.P. Holtz said. “Being there, that many people in the crowd. It’s Notre Dame.
“I think it’s going to be motivation for a lot of the guys that played last year because we should’ve won that game.”
Most of the returning players for Pitt are on the defensive side of the ball. The offense features a new quarterback, new running backs and a reshuffled offensive line.
Quarterback Tom Savage watched the 2012 game with his parents, but they eventually left the room because he was so emotionally involved in the game.
“Last year’s a completely different year,” he said this week. “Obviously it was a close game. It’s going to be fun. They have a great team coming back and so do we.”
Holtz admitted that that loss stuck with the team a little longer than it should have, and even played a role in the loss at Connecticut the following week.
A yearlong hangover from that loss to the Irish could prove equally as disastrous for the Panthers, because the game tonight has its own stakes. The Panthers are teetering on the brink of bowl eligibility, needing two more wins to secure postseason play for the sixth consecutive year.
There are winnable games left on the schedule, but an upset tonight would give the Panthers a bit of breathing room in terms of locking down a bowl bid.
“We want to get to the bowl game,” defensive tackle Aaron Donald said. “As a team, I feel like we can do it.”
The game also will impact the long-term future of the program, as the Panthers will have a number of high-profile recruits in the stands Saturday, including star safety Montae Nicholson of Gateway.
“You love having them here,” coach Paul Chryst said. “I think anybody getting a feel for who we are, our program, it’s good. Anytime you get guys on campus, you’re really appreciative of that.”
The recruits are likely to take in one of the best atmosphere’s of a home game this season. All seats at Heinz Field have been sold, meaning it’ll be a standing-room-only crowd for a prime-time game on national television.
In other words, the kind of scenario in which any college football player wants to be.
“It’s going to be fun,” Savage said. “This is just like Florida State, night game here. It’s every quarterback’s dream.”
Pitt won’t be able to derail Notre Dame’s championship hopes this year — with two losses, those were gone long ago — but the Irish still have an outside shot at a BCS game bid that the Panthers could extinguish tonight.
This is one of those games where motivation for Chryst and his staff will not be an issue.
“It’s not hard to get motivated to play a good team,” Chryst said. “Here’s a team that played for the national championship last year. It’s obviously a top program in the country, historically and recently. Our guys know the opportunity, know the challenge with it, but you’re not going to take anything for granted, either.”