Football: Wannstedt not eyeing ranking as Notre Dame comes to Heinz Field

By Greg Trietley

Pitt climbed to No. 8 in the AP Top 25 this week, but don’t tell that to Dave Wannstedt.

“It doesn’t have any bearing on anything that we have to do Saturday,” Wannstedt said. “It’s a nice reward for [our players], but we’ve got three games left.”

Nonetheless, as the regular season nears its close, Pitt will try to keep its highest BCS ranking in school history when Notre Dame (6-3) squares off against the Wannstedt’s Panthers (8-1, 5-0 Big East) Saturday night.

Pitt hasn’t defeated Notre Dame at home since 1999.

The Fighting Irish enter Heinz Field with one of this season’s top quarterbacks at the helm, junior Jimmy Clausen. Clausen has 20 touchdown passes and just three interceptions this season.

“Clausen is playing as good as any quarterback around,” Wannstedt said. “There are no holes in this guy.”

Much of the Fighting Irish’s offense comes from the connection of Clausen to wide receiver Golden Tate, whose 10 touchdowns this season put him in a five-way tie for second in the nation — along with Pitt’s Dorin Dickerson and three others.

Wannstedt praised the junior wide receiver’s toughness.

“Without a doubt, Golden is the best player that we have faced,” Wannstedt said. “This guy is exceptional at catching the ball, exceptional at making guys miss.”

Notre Dame will disappoint fans looking for another Pitt opponent to run the wildcat formation on offense. Unlike South Florida and Syracuse, the Fighting Irish do not utilize the quarterback in the running game, Wannstedt said. Clausen has negative rushing yards on the season.

“Their run game is very similar to ours,” Wannstedt said. “They’re going to run the power, the toss. They aren’t going to be one of those teams that run the quarterback a lot.”

Notre Dame starting running back Armando Allen, who averages 4.9 yards per carry, is expected to return to action against Pitt after missing two games with an ankle injury.

Meanwhile, Pitt’s offense continues to click under offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti. Last weekend’s 37-10 win over Syracuse marked Dion Lewis’ fourth straight 100-yard rushing performance and Bill Stull’s ninth straight game with a passing touchdown.

The maturation on the other side of the ball, though, impressed Wannstedt the most. Pitt gave up 500 yards of offense in each game against North Carolina State and Buffalo in September, but now leads the Big East in total defense.

“We’ve settled in a bit more as the year has gone on, defensively,” Wannstedt said. “I think our players have a little bit more confidence.”

Wannstedt wants to mind turnovers against Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish have forced 17 of them this season, and senior safety Kyle McCarthy has five interceptions alone this year.

“They try to create bad plays, negative plays,” Wannstedt said. “With the skill that they have on defense, particularly in their secondary with some of the speed and experience they have back there, they can latch on to receivers and give you a lot of bad plays.”

The Fighting Irish lost to Navy last week, 23-21, and fell outside the AP Top 25 as a result. Wannstedt said Notre Dame will come out looking for redemption.

“I’m expecting that we are going to be getting an angry, tough, hungry, football team in here on Saturday night,” Wannstedt said. “When you’re dealing with good coaches, and you’re dealing with good players and high character people, and you have a setback, you better be expecting their best effort.”

A much-anticipated matchup, ABC will nationally televise the game Saturday night. In addition, Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl declared Friday “Turn It Blue Day” to rally up fan support for the game. Those in attendance are once again encouraged to wear Pitt navy blue.

The game is the first time Pitt has sold-out Heinz Field since its game against West Virginia last year. Before that, Pitt last sold out the stadium in 2005, when it hosted Notre Dame.

Still, Wannstedt reminded his players that the off-field hype won’t matter come game time.

“We’re going to keep our feet on the ground,” Wannstedt said. “It’s not going to be the people in the stands. It’s not going to

be the TV people. It’s going to come down to blocking and tackling.”