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Kovacevic: Pitt's Golden (Dome) opportunity

| Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012, 11:59 p.m.
Pitt head coach Paul Chryst on the sideline during as the Panthers lose the first game against Youngstown State at Heinz Field Sept. 1, 2012.
Chaz Palla | Tribune Review
Pitt head coach Paul Chryst on the sideline during as the Panthers lose the first game against Youngstown State at Heinz Field Sept. 1, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

Paul Chryst probably was one of those children whose expressions never change, even when sitting in pajamas by the Christmas tree. Every great gift might as well have been tube socks, every lousy gift an Xbox 360.

Upon losing to Youngstown State in his Pitt debut, the unflappable coach told us all: “We certainly have to become a better team.”

After the ugly win in Buffalo: “By no means was it perfect.”

Chryst is a passionate man, by all accounts, about his job and the young men he guides. But to say that it seldom bubbles up is akin to saying Tino Sunseri has his share of critics.

It's kind of fun, then, to picture how Chryst will react Saturday if the Panthers can buck all the forecasts and beat undefeated No. 3 Notre Dame in South Bend.

Thoughts on a potential first signature win, Coach?

“Well, I think it's more than just a game,” Chryst replied to my question Thursday on the South Side. “Any time you get an opportunity like this … they don't come all that often, so you want to take advantage of it.”

OK, so that's something. In context, that's like a battle cry from atop a charging horse.

Know this: Even if Chryst is privately ecstatic about the chance for his 4-4 team to spill the 8-0 Irish, even if he's spending his waking hours envisioning the nation tuning in for the 3:30 p.m. NBC broadcast, even if he's got “Rudy” playing on repeat mode, the man isn't going to show it.

That's why Chryst has had his players in all-business mode all week. He's got little to gain from having them so amped up about the Golden Dome and Touchdown Jesus that they can't function.

But for the rest of us, let's not pretend this game is anything less than one that can salvage Pitt's disappointing season.

And maybe much more.

All you have to do is flip back to Dec. 1, 2007.

The Panthers were 4-7, and heading to Morgantown to face a 10-1 West Virginia team for an event that historians can attest was known as the Backyard Brawl. Emotions were high, the stakes even higher for the Mountaineers, who needed the win for a BCS championship berth.

Pitt 13, West Virginia 9.

Who can forget it?

Certainly not the victorious quarterback that night.

“What I remember most was being out there celebrating like we'd won a high school championship, really whooping it up,” Pat Bostick said Thursday. “But then when I saw it later on TV, you could tell that crowd was just shocked. Totally silent. Could have heard a pin drop in there except for us.”

The winning didn't stop there. You can argue that 13-9 carried over for a couple years.

Wide receiver Cam Saddler, then at Gateway High School, was visiting West Virginia that game and wound up walking off the field with the Pitt guys. Eight others, notably Jonathan Baldwin and Mike Shanahan, soon followed.

Call it coincidence, but Pitt went 9-4 and 10-3 the next two seasons, the best back-to-back outputs in three decades.

“There's no doubt in my mind that game had a residual effect,” Bostick said. “A lot changed.”

“I've been in places where we've had big wins, and there's certainly momentum that comes from them,” Chryst said. “I think the biggest thing is for the group of guys. They're the ones who go out and get it done.”

I'll be blunt: I don't think the Panthers will pull off a sequel Saturday.

But I also won't say they can't.

Notre Dame's defense has allowed an absurd 9.9 points per game — only No. 1 Alabama is better — and the Irish ground game has topped 200 yards the past two weeks. Logic tells you that both of Pitt's beleaguered lines will be overwhelmed.

Thing is, logic sometimes also can add up to 13-9.

Logic can point to Pitt winning two of the past three in South Bend, including the four-OT thriller in 2008.

Or logic can point to these Irish coming off three tough wins — over No. 17 Stanford, by three points over BYU and over No. 8 Oklahoma — with a possible letdown at hand.

Or logic can toss out intangibles and point to Pitt's skill on offense. Ray Graham and Rushel Shell should be able to run against any Division I defense, much as Shady McCoy stormed West Virginia in 2007 for 148 yards. There's big-play ability at receiver, too. And Sunseri … well, look, you can keep crushing him for how he played in the past, or you can applaud how efficiently he's playing now.

To repeat, I don't think it will happen.

But if it does, no one will have much more to say about Youngstown State or Buffalo than Chryst did.

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