Mystique envelops Notre Dame Stadium

| Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010

Pitt middle linebacker Max Gruder vividly remembers running onto Notre Dame Stadium's field as a wide-eyed redshirt freshman two years ago.

"It was," he said, "kind of mind-boggling."

Notre Dame has dropped 23 of its past 41 games and owns one bowl victory since 1993. But the mystique of the Golden Dome and Touchdown Jesus remain as strong as ever.

Pitt (2-2), which hasn't lost at Notre Dame (2-3) since 2002, will make another trip to the hallowed stadium at 3:30 p.m. Saturday for a nationally televised game.

The 80,795-seat stadium is by far the biggest opposing venue Pitt will visit this year (Raymond James Stadium in Tampa for USF is a distant second at 65,857). Saturday's game will be the 216th consecutive sellout at the 80-year-old stadium, the second-longest active streak in the nation behind Nebraska.

"There is so much history to that stadium," Gruder said. "You can really feel it. It's really a great football atmosphere there."

Pitt has won its past two games at Notre Dame, both in dramatic fashion. In 2004, the Panthers prevailed, 41-38, (and quarterback Tyler Palko's infamous postgame expletive made the national telecast). In 2008, in arguably the most exciting game in the 101-year-old series, Pitt escaped with a four-overtime, 36-33 victory.

"They haven't been Notre Dame like when I grew up," said senior safety/linebacker Dom DeCicco, who started the 2008 game. "But just going there, once you see the Touchdown Jesus, it clicks. There are some extra butterflies. You get a little extra nerves walking on the field. But as soon as that first play and that first hit, you are playing football and that's all behind you."

Six current Panthers started in the 2008 game at Notre Dame — tackle Jason Pinkston, defensive end Jabaal Sheard, linebacker Greg Williams, cornerback Ricky Gary, DeCicco and backup quarterback Pat Bostick.

"It's an experience," said right guard Lucas Nix, who traveled for the '08 game as a freshman but didn't play. "Some of these young guys will really get to see a different atmosphere for a college football game."

Despite the program's recent downturn, Notre Dame consistently ranks among the top football stadiums in the nation. CBS Sports and ESPN ranked it No. 2, behind only Texas A&M and LSU, respectively. From the leprechaun to the narrow sidelines in the 19th-largest college stadium in the nation, the place is a memorable experience.

"It's definitely a fun place to play," DeCicco said. "It's probably the closest (stadium) where the crowd is to being right on top of you. As soon as you are on the sidelines, it feels like you are right against the wall to the crowd. It's definitely something you have to deal with."

Pitt's young players got a taste of a hostile crowd in the season opener at Utah, when 45,730 fans jammed into Rice-Eccles Stadium.

"I'm optimistic and hopeful that the Utah experience will pay dividends for us going up to South Bend," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "It will not be the first time that we've been exposed to that."

Additional Information:

Hallowed grounds ranked the top college football stadiums in America:

1. Texas A&M (Kyle Field)

2. Notre Dame (Notre Dame Stadium)

3. Tennessee (Neyland Stadium)

4. Florida (Ben Hill Griffin Stadium)

5. LSU (Tiger Stadium)

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