Panthers preparing for pass

Kevin Gorman
| Monday, Oct. 27, 2008

After its supposedly top-10 secondary was exposed with a pungent performance against Rutgers Saturday, Pitt is vowing to avoid another epic second-half collapse despite correlations to 2006.

The five-game skid to end that season also started with the one-loss Panthers falling to the Scarlet Knights at Heinz Field. Now, on the heels of a 54-34 loss to Rutgers, Pitt (5-2) looks to redeem its defense and salvage its season starting with its game at Notre Dame (5-2) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

"It's huge, because there's going to be a lot of doubters out there just thinking about exactly (that)," free safety Eric Thatcher said. "When we went on that losing streak two years ago, Rutgers started it, and it was at home. It was a convincing win then, and it was a convincing win (Saturday). But, as a defense and as a team, I think we're going to rally together.

"That's why you play Division I football, for the pressure. We can step up and play or we can go in the tank, like we did a couple years ago. With this team and some of the leaders on this team, I don't think that will happen. I know the defense is ready for the challenge."

The Panthers have plenty to prove, especially after Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel torched them for a career-high 361 passing yards and school-record six touchdowns. Teel had thrown more than twice as many interceptions (seven) as touchdowns (three) coming into the game. Yet he had a career day against a Pitt defense ranked first in the Big East and 10th nationally against the pass.

"We didn't execute," Thatcher said. "All that stuff on paper, you just throw that out once you get on the field. Everybody is equal once you get on that field."

Unless you consider that Notre Dame is directed by Charlie Weis, who won three Super Bowl rings as offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots.

Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen, a sophomore who was the nation's top recruit two years ago, has thrown for 200 yards or more six times this season, including 347 against Stanford and 383 against North Carolina.

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said the Panthers prepared to stop Rutgers from running the ball, only to see the Scarlet Knights use play-action passes to fool the safeties and throw downfield at will against man coverage.

The Fighting Irish are averaging twice as many passing yards (262.6) as rushing (122.7). They also have deep threats in receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd who should test undersized cornerbacks Aaron Berry and Jovani Chappel.

The game will be nationally televised on NBC, with the winner becoming bowl eligible. Pitt has yet to clinch a bowl berth under fourth-year coach Dave Wannstedt, and the Fighting Irish are trying to return to playing in the postseason after a 3-9 campaign.

"I think, regardless of who we're playing, Saturday couldn't come any faster," Pitt middle linebacker Scott McKillop said. "With the added positive of playing at Notre Dame, playing on television and having people doubting us again, we're going to answer our critics and play to our capability."

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