Crucial game Thursday a rare opportunity for Pitt students

By Dan Sostek / Sports Editor

For the first marquee home matchup in six years, Pitt football is the team with a bullseye on their back.

The Panthers have suffered through mediocre season after mediocre season this decade. They sport a new look now, ranking No. 23 in the AP Top 25 Poll and No. 24 in the Amway Coaches Poll. They survived a gruelling battle in Syracuse against the Orange this past weekend, earning that boost in the polls and a return to Pittsburgh as a top-25 team.

With all the hype and hubbub in Pitt’s fanbase crescendoing, Thursday’s home matchup against North Carolina is the most important Pitt football game since the Panthers squandered a Big East crown at Heinz Field against an undefeated Cincinnati team in 2009.

In that game, Pitt blew a 21-point first half lead to the Bearcats, losing a chance at a Bowl Championship Series berth.

While the stakes aren’t quite as high Thursday at Heinz Field, winning the game would put the Panthers on a much smoother path to the ACC Championship game. A victory would hoist them one win over the Tar Heels, who boast a 6-1 record and 3-0 ACC mark and remain tied with Duke — also undefeated in ACC play.

Losing the game would knock Pitt a game behind UNC and the Blue Devils right before a difficult stretch of conference games against Duke on the road and Louisville and Miami on the horizon.

But forget all the on-field significance of the game. This contest is crucial in re-establishing Pitt in the national eye. ESPN will televise the game at Heinz Field, a location that has been irrelevant nationally in the collegiate landscape since that 2009 game against Cincinnati.

Pitt’s outcry for fans to fill up Heinz Field has been a broken record this year to support a team in contention for a division title. And Thursday games can potentially put students in a pickle, committing them to stay out in the North Shore until 11 p.m. or so on a school night.

But opportunities like this one — a chance to see the Panthers play a monumental game at home against a formidable conference opponent — don’t come around often. It’s a chance that fans should relish.

Pitt hasn’t played a home game at night since 2013 when the Notre Dame Fighting Irish visited Heinz Field. The environment was electric that night, even though the Panthers — then at a 4-4 record — were not remotely as impressive of a team as the current 6-1 squad.

Granted, it was a Saturday, not a Thursday, but the Panthers’ increased success and the amplified importance of the game should make up for the weekday slot. This is a team that is good enough to elicit the fanbase support that other ACC schools like UNC or Georgia Tech garner.

The athletic department is well aware of the need for noise. They’re currently offering packages of six tickets for $36. They’re giving away drinks and snacks to hungry, devoted fans who stay all #FOURQUARTERS. They’re even bringing back and honoring College Football Hall of Fame inductee Ruben Brown at halftime.

No one can say Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi isn’t trying. In his weekly press conference on Monday, he discussed the importance of the Panther Pitt against the opposing Tar Heels.

“[The Tar Heels] have to come into a hostile environment this weekend,” Narduzzi said. “The Panther Pitt has to be unbelievable this weekend.  [North Carolina] runs that no-huddle offense, so we need that 12th man in the stands this week. It has to get loud to the point where they have problems communicating.”

With the success his team has had this year, Narduzzi has given Pitt fans what they’ve lacked this decade — it only seems fair for Pitt fans to reciprocate. Give the man what he wants. Heinz Field needs to be deafening on Thursday night, so drink a Red Bull and study for that calculus midterm later.