Boasting its highest ranking in 20 years, Pittsburgh's chances of representing the Big East in a major bowl game are growing stronger by the week.
The eighth-ranked Panthers' final two games will determine if they're conference championship material, but they won't be looking past Saturday night's showdown with the stumbling Fighting Irish, who visit Heinz Field hoping to avoid an eighth straight loss to a top-10 opponent.
Oddsmakers from online sports book Sportsbook.com have made
Pitt (8-1) is off to its best start since Dan Marino's senior season in 1982, which was also the last time the program was ranked in the top 10 this late in the season.
The Panthers haven't been ranked this high since being No. 7 on Oct. 24, 1989, but they also haven't really been tested. Pitt has won its five conference games by an average of 17.8 points, piling up 481 yards last Saturday in a 37-10 rout of
"I think we did a good job of keeping our feet on the ground, knowing the importance of this conference game putting us 5-0, coming out and not taking nothing for granted," coach Dave Wannstedt said.
Pitt visits rival
The Fighting Irish (6-3) likely lost their chance at grabbing a BCS bid after a stunning 23-21 home loss to Navy last Saturday dropped them from the rankings. The Panthers' players, though, are hardly treating it as a tune-up.
"Everybody is excited about Notre Dame," tailback Dion Lewis said. "We've got to have a good week of practice, bring our 'A' game. ... We've got to keep coming."
Lewis has been arguably the biggest reason for the Panthers' resurgence. LeSean McCoy declared for the NFL draft after his sophomore season, leaving Pitt with a big hole in the backfield, but it hasn't missed a beat with Lewis.
The 5-foot-8 freshman is seventh nationally with 126.6 rushing yards per game and needs 190 yards to surpass McCoy's Big East freshman record of 1,328.
Notre Dame will certainly need to do a better job stopping Lewis than it did against the Midshipmen, who gained 6.1 yards per carry in racking up 348 on the ground. That, plus three Irish turnovers, allowed Navy to control the clock and overcome a career-high 452 yards passing from Jimmy Clausen.
"It's not about statistics at all," said Clausen, the nation's third-highest rated passer. "It's about production and putting points on the board and at the end of the game coming up with a win. ... It's just heartbreaking right now."
The biggest difference in Clausen this season has been his efficiency. Michael Floyd (124.8) and Golden Tate (117.7) rank third and fourth, respectively, in the nation in receiving yards per game, and Clausen has continued to find them without turning the ball over. He's thrown three interceptions in 308 attempts after throwing 17 in 440 as a sophomore.
Both Floyd and Tate had 100 yards receiving against Pitt last season in
Clausen will have his hands full Saturday against a Pitt defense that's first in the nation with 39 sacks, led by junior end Greg Romeus' 7 1/2.
Notre Dame's defense ranks 88th against the pass (237.4), and this season Bill Stull seems much more prepared.
Stull missed the game against the Irish last season with a concussion, and threw nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions in his other 12 contests as a junior. He was the Big East's fifth-highest rated passer (119.9).
This season, Stull is fifth nationally in pass efficiency (161.6). He's been sacked eight times after going down 25 times last season and has thrown 17 touchdowns - nine to Dorin Dickerson - and four interceptions.
Pitt has lost both games against Notre Dame at Heinz Field, falling 42-21 in the last matchup Sept. 3, 2005 - Weis' first game on the sidelines for the Irish and Wannstedt's coaching debut with his alma mater.
A week later, Notre Dame beat No. 3 Michigan for its last win over a top-10 team. Considering many critics are calling for Weis' job, he knows the Irish could use another in
"They're ready for their dog and pony show," Weis said. "They're all ready for their major celebration when Notre Dame rolls into town, and we're going to go there with the intent of spoiling it."
Posted: 11/10/09 8:12PM ET