With nine regular-season wins for the second straight season, Pittsburgh (9-3) can secure a 10th victory for the first time since 1981, which capped a run of three straight 11-1 seasons for the Panthers.
No. 17 Pitt faces North Carolina (8-4) in the Meineke Car Care Bowl Saturday at 4:30 p.m. in Charlotte, N.C. The Panthers also won nine games in 1982, 2002 and last season, so a 10-3 mark would be quite an accomplishment.
"These seniors have done so much to take this program back to national prominence, and we've got to finish this out,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We had two tough losses at the end, but we've got to finish on a positive note. We can't control today what happens (with NC), but we can prepare for it.
"We're going to enjoy the bowl game and do some things and see some things down there as a team, but ... it's business. We've got to go down there and make sure that when it's time for football and time for meetings that we need to make sure that we're focused and maximize that time.''
Pitt left Monday and began practicing at the Country Day School in Charlotte, which is Max Gruder's high school.
"It'll be great to be back there, since I haven't been there in a while,'' Gruder said. "I'm looking forward to it, and if we can get a 10th win it would be great.''
Yes, every player interviewed has refocused on North Carolina and securing a 10th win. In fact, signs were placed around the team's practice facility before it left for Charlotte proclaiming for them to dare to be different. Get 10 wins.
"If we can go out with a 10th win, it would help me feel real good about where this program is headed,'' Byham said. "We already won nine games last year, so I don't want to do that again. I want to get this 10th win.
"No matter what, there's going to be an empty spot, because we wanted to be the (Big East) champions, but if we can get this 10th win it's going to be a whole lot better. So, that's what we're going for against North Carolina.''
That definitely was the feeling of the upperclassmen, that the program is in good hands now and a bowl-game victory would be the best way to move forward. Sixth-year senior middle linebacker Adam Gunn had another reason.
"We definitely want to end on a high note and set a new standard around here,'' Gunn said. "Pitt teams used to win 10 or more games all the time, but it hasn't happened for a while now. So, we need to get back to that level, and this is our chance. A 10th win would mean a lot to this program right now.
"Pitt has a great football tradition, and when Coach Wannstedt got here he was all about returning us to the level they achieved in the past. We've really built it back up since I've been here, and we're doing great now. We won nine regular-season games the past two years, and we're going for our 10th win.
"What we really want to do is get Pitt back to being a national championship-caliber team, and we're getting closer,'' Gunn added. "If we can get this 10th win we'll be even closer yet. So, we're well on our way to that level, and our future is much better off than it was when I got here.''
Fifth-year senior quarterback Bill Stull noted that his classmates had been discussing their situation for a while now, saying that it was their last practice at home together, last team meal and things like that. The last home game was extremely emotional, Stull said, but it really hasn't set in that the bowl game would be their last one ever at Pitt. But there's one last accomplishment before it all comes to an end.
"It definitely means a lot for us to get this 10th win,'' Stull said. "That hasn't been done around here for a long time. Our first goal was to win every game, but we couldn't get that done. Obviously, another goal was to win the Big East championship, and we were so close to winning that.
"Now, we have another goal, and that's to finish this season with 10 wins. ... So, we can end the season on a good not and a chance for the seniors to cap off the season with something positive. (And) with all the things that happened and just missing out on some things, this is the best way for us to end it.''
And the best way for the upperclassmen to go out as well.
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