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Pitt has much to prove in prime-time road game against Connecticut

| Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012, 10:48 p.m.
Pittsburgh tight end J.P. Holtz, right, makes a catch for a touchdown in front of Notre Dame linebacker Danny Spond during the second half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012. Notre Dame defeated Pittsburgh 29-26 in triple overtime. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

For the past two months, Pitt has struggled to find an identity. But now, for better or worse, the final three regular-season games of 2012 will define coach Paul Chryst's first team.

After the season-opening defeat to FCS member Youngstown State, critics assumed Pitt could lose to anyone. But the Panthers decisively defeated then-No. 15 Virginia Tech only two weeks later.

Now, after a courageous — but failed — effort in a triple-overtime loss at No. 4 Notre Dame, perhaps Pitt can compete with anyone.

Chryst wants to see the proof.

Before he accompanied his team to Connecticut for Friday's game at Rentschler Field, Chryst was asked if the 29-26 loss in South Bend will make Pitt stronger. After all, the Panthers came within a missed field goal of upsetting an unbeaten Irish team in noisy Notre Dame Stadium.

“I am anxious to see if that cliche holds true,” Chryst said. “That, to me, is one of the storylines. Are we going to learn from that? Is that a one-time deal? Or, is that we are growing as a team?”

Pitt will confront a Connecticut team carrying a four-game losing streak into the nationally televised (ESPN2) contest. But the Huskies are 3-1 against the Panthers at Rentschler, including a come-from-behind 30-28 victory that ruined Pitt's BCS bowl hopes in 2010.

The stakes will be considerably less Friday, but a loss would seriously cripple Pitt's chance of extending its streak of bowl appearances to five in a row.

“We have to get this one to get six (victories and bowl eligibility),” senior guard Chris Jacobson said. “This is big. These seniors want to have an extra game.”

Actually, moving forward won't be tough for some players. Pitt's offensive effort against Notre Dame was nothing to remember in the fourth quarter and all three overtimes, when the Panthers gained a total of only 21 yards.

“We definitely made some mistakes, myself included,” Jacobson said. “(I) had a couple of breakdown plays where I need to do better. That's behind us now.”

Jacobson said forgetting may be difficult for younger players, but it's a necessary function of finding a way to beat Connecticut.

“You have to clean the slate and focus on other things now,” he said.

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jdipaola@tribweb.com.

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