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Pitt football team on 'business' trip in Compass Bowl

| Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, 10:48 p.m.
Pitt players, including quarterbacks Tino Sunseri (12) and Trey Anderson (10) warm up during a practice at Hoover High School in Hoover, Ala., Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. Pitt plays Mississippi Saturday in the BBVA Compass Bowl NCAA college football game on Saturday in Birmingham. (AP)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A sly smile crawled across Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald's face when he was asked about practice this week for the BBVA Compass Bowl.

“We're banging,” he said. “We're hitting.”

Just the way he likes it.

“Having fun,” he said.

Pitt's manner of preparation in the final days before its third Compass Bowl in three years is different this time. Practices are more physical, and the intensity and focus have increased, according to several players.

“Last year was kind of ‘We're here,' ” senior safety Andrew Taglianetti said, “but this year, it's more business. We are really down here to win this year. Not saying we weren't last year, but I think our approach is much different.

“Circumstances surrounding that bowl game and the departure of (former coach Todd Graham), it kind of messed with everything.”

Even when Pitt was working at home last month, Taglianetti noticed a difference.

“It's really important to have coaches who really know what they're doing,” he said. “Practices were tough. We didn't really necessarily like that, a lot of scrimmaging and what-not, but I think it will pay off. It has kind of kept us in game shape and kept the focus on Ole Miss.”

Coach Paul Chryst said the players' approach has been good.

“You'd like to think we are kind of doing it like you should,” he said.

But he'll be convinced if Pitt can win Saturday.

“It's all about the game,” he said.

Three days of practice at Hoover High School, outside Birmingham, offered a capsule look at how the Pitt football program has evolved in the past 12 months. This year, there is a near- and long-term purpose, compared to last year when the entire coaching staff (or, what was left of it) was thinking about getting out of town while preparing for the game against SMU.

Last year, players wore only jerseys and helmets at practice and weakly went through the motions in a 28-6 loss to a team from Conference USA.

This year, players were fully padded all week, and Donald is predicting victory against an SEC school.

“I'm confident in this game,” he said. “The outcome I see is a win.”

And make no mistake about it: The result of a game between 6-6 teams is important, even with no implications beyond the schools involved.

“Six-7 is a lot different than 7-6,” Taglianetti said. “Not only for me as a senior, but to kind of just give these younger guys a lot of confidence and lot of good feeling going into next year.”

Taglianetti, who played for three head coaches at Pitt, said he has experienced several “learning points, highs and lows” in five years. He said he has confidence the program is, finally, pointed in the right direction.

“As a future season-ticket holder,” he said, “I am really excited for the future of this team.”

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

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