Through his team’s first seven games, Pittsburgh first-year coach Paul Chryst didn’t allow names on the back of players’ jerseys. Because of an unselfish attitude that began to take hold, that changed last week against Temple. The Panthers rolled to a 47-17 win — their second straight — to get back to .500 (4-4), and they’ll be allowed to display their individual identities when they travel to No. 4 Notre Dame Saturday.
Pittsburgh first-year head coach Paul Chryst has the Panthers back to .500 and riding high after back-to-back wins
Collectively, though, Chryst would love to see his program be as selfish as possible when it comes to wrecking what the Fighting Irish have built in 2012.
On their last three trips to South Bend, the Panthers beat Notre Dame twice (2004 and 2008) and pushed the 2010 contest to the wire, losing to the Fighting Irish 20-16. When the two programs squared off in Pittsburgh last Sept. 24, it required a fourth-quarter rally by the Irish to secure a 15-12 victory.
“I think belief is a part of it in every game you play,” Chryst said when asked about Pitt’s opportunity to play spoiler. “We never approach those games any different than any other one. I don't think that's the way to go about it. I may be different, and others may disagree, but I think you approach every game consistently. What it takes to beat Notre Dame is the same thing that it takes to beat other teams on your schedule. That's playing good football, being the best you can be, taking advantage of opportunities and not shooting yourself in the foot. All those things apply."
It has been five years since Pitt faced a team ranked in the top four. Things went well back on Dec. 1, 2007, when the upset-minded Panthers toppled 10-1 and second-ranked West Virginia in Morgantown, 13-9, to rip a potential BCS title game berth away from the Mountaineers.
But Chryst knows points are hard to come by against Notre Dame, which ranks 11th nationally in total defense (293 yards per game) and second in scoring defense (9.9 points per game) — the only team besides No. 1 Alabama (8.1) to surrender fewer than 10 points per outing. He’s also aware that it’s not just Irish senior Manti Te’o that his offense has to worry about.
“As good as (Manti) Te'o is, and I think he's a special player, they've got a lot of other guys that make it work and they're extremely disciplined,” he said. “Obviously they have talent. I think their scheme really fits the people that they have. They play fast. It looks like they play smart. They're doing things that they want them doing. I think they tackle extremely well and they're opportunistic when the ball is in the air. They've got a number of guys with good ball skills.
“… They've got a really good combination of talented players, well coached, and guys that are old enough and veterans that have been through it. That's what kind of makes it a special team right now."
Pitt senior quarterback Tino Sunseri, though the record doesn’t reflect it, is having the best season of his career. He has thrown for 2,199 yards and 13 touchdowns against only two interceptions. He leads the Big East Conference and ranks eighth nationally in pass efficiency (164.79 rating). In 2011, Sunseri was picked off 11 times compared to 10 touchdown tosses.
Chryst expects his players to be locked in and not be overwhelmed by the hype of playing an undefeated team that’s in the championship race.
“All that stuff is really good for the game and you love the interest, but the game stands on its own,” he said. “We can play this game and it would be a great game if no one was in the stands and they weren't talking about it on all the things.
“The game still stands on its own. Only way that you play well is focusing on playing the game. It's one of the things you want to appreciate and enjoy. That's part of the reason you come to a place like Pitt. You don't want to rob them of that, but it's all about the game and all about your preparation."