The Competition Factor

Kevin Hoffman-US PRESSWIRE

One of two things will come true for Pitt this week. They will be better for having taken the No. 3 team in the country down to the wire; potentially increasing their chances for a strong finish. Or, they will only play to the level of competition--good when playing a Notre Dame; not so good when playing a team in next to last place in the Big East.

In order to be the best, you have to play the best.

That's true of any sport. Teams, programs become stronger by facing stiff competition. While the 29-26 triple-overtime loss to Notre Dame is disappointing in the sense that Pitt was unable to hold on, the Panthers can also take something from playing against the No. 3 team in the country, you would hope.

At the same time, while competition makes a team stronger, this Pitt team has to learn resiliency too. In this case, they can't have any hangover effects on Friday night at UConn--a game much more important in the scheme of conference positioning. Also, the fact Pitt can only afford one loss in its final three games to remain bowl eligible.

Now that the Notre Dame loss has had a few days to settle in, does the competition factor help? By taking a No. 3 team to three overtimes on their home field, can that level of play make this Pitt team better? Todd Thomas thinks so.

"That was definitely a confidence booster, going in to that game," Thomas said. "Nobody even thought we were going to come close to that team except for the people that are in this building. That was definitely a confidence booster for us, now, we just have to play every ame at that level."

Thomas said watching Tyler Eifert on film was one thing. Lining up and playing against someone with Eifert's hybrid abilities as a tight end and receiver is another.

"Their skill; I was guarding (Eifert) most of the game," Thomas added. "He was a real good blocking tight end; route running and he was fast. Their skills are a little bit different."

It's not all the same for all players. Wile offensive lineman Chris Jacobson said the Irish earned his respect, he credits the competition in practice for making him better; and getting him well prepared to see someone like Notre Dame's Louis Nix, or even UConn's Yawin Smallwod.

"There's good guys you play against every week," Jacobson said. "I think Aaron Donald is one of the best guys I've ever gone against. Going against him is probably the best competition I'm going to get. Having him helps, and helps our other offensive linemen. Every week, we go up against a couple of good guys. Even this week, with UConn, we go up against a couple of good guys. They have confident leaders up there.

"As a guy who's explosive, yeah you wouldn't expect it because (Donald) is a guy who's not all that big. He is strong and he's a guy I like to go against in practice, because he makes me better. I like that. I think if I can block him, I can block a couple of other people too."

In order for Pitt to best UConn, all strategies aside, they must prove their resilient, and prove they're not completely drained from Saturday's loss. There are another set of players that have that resiliency mode built in from the competition factor. In other words, all opponents are created equal. Therefore, following a tough loss, its time to move on and be prepared for a greater or equal challenge the following week, despite win-loss record.

"That was a big thing going into the (Notre Dame) game," center Ryan Turnley said. "(offensie line) Coach (Jim) Hueber stressed to us that they're college football players. That's something a lot of guys might have got caught up in the moment, or whatever. Just playing against college football players, they're your peers. If you go out and execute the game plan, good things will happen.

"My confidence level is usually pretty steady regardless of good game, bad game. It was fun to go in there and give them our best shot. Coming out of the game, I think everybody knows the things we could have done better. That's encouraging going into the UConn game."

The same even goes for someone like Ray Graham, who took all of one play to put up the longest single offensive play of the season against Notre Dame. Graham went on to score just the second rushing touchdown against Notre Dame's defense, not to mention a season-high 172 yards on the ground. Those are all numbers to be proud of, and based on the competition factor, should certainly prepare him well for the final three regular season games. Also, for a senior in Graham's case, its the type of performance that boosts NFL Draft stock.

The next three games will truly prove if the level of competition improves Pitt as a team. For now, though, the mentality is to just treat each team the same; every game as winnable as the one before. We should find out pretty quickly which one is true--either Pitt comes out Friday resurged and improved from playing Notre Dame, or in a lull because of lingering effects.

"I just thought that Notre Dame was another opponent on our schedule," Graham said. "We treat every team the same. We give the same respect to every opponent. They're a Division I team like we're a Division I team. We go out there and scheme up things, just like they scheme up things."

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