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February 26, 2013

Two key elements to filling seats

There isn't much mystery behind what it takes for Pitt to fill Heinz Field:

A good team and good opponents.

While the Panthers have had some of each in the 12 years they have played their games on the North Shore, neither has come with enough frequency or reliability to make sellouts a trend. For 2013, though, at least one part of that equation will be in place, as Pitt will host two "event" games and three total marquee opponents.

Pitt will open the 2013 season on Labor Day night against Florida State, host Notre Dame in early November, and close the regular season in a nationally-televised Black Friday showdown with Miami. Those games on the schedule will generate interest, and if history is any indication, Pitt's attendance should get a considerable boost on the strength of those opponents alone.

In Pitt's 12-year history at Heinz Field, the Panthers have recorded 11 games with at least 60,000 in announced attendance; Notre Dame and Miami accounted for five of those 11 games, and the Irish were on the schedule for Pitt's two highest-attended seasons, 2003 and 2009.

But those two seasons have another common trait: Pitt was successful. In 2003 the Panthers were a preseason top-10 team and featured one of the nation's most exciting playmakers in Larry Fitzgerald. Pitt fell short of its goals, but the Panthers still had a chance to play for the Big East championship late in the season in a primetime game against Miami.

In 2009, Pitt climbed as high as No. 9 in the BCS rankings in November and drew more than 63,000 for the regular-season finale against Cincinnati.

So while Pitt's players are excited for the schedule that was announced on Monday - "That's what football's about," receiver Devin Street said - they know there's more to it than just welcoming Florida State and Notre Dame to Heinz Field.

"You have to come out here and show it," Street said. "You can come out and say, 'We're going to do this, we're going to do that,' but at the end of the day, we have to come out and show everyone what we can do. I think we have a great group of guys that will come together. The team is different now."

Pitt needs the team to be different. Concurrent with a pair of coaching changes and 6-7 seasons, the attendance lagged over the last two seasons. In 2012, Pitt averaged 41,494 for the Panthers' six home games; the only years in Pitt's 12-year history at Heinz Field with lower per-game averages were 2005 and 2007, when the Panthers went 5-6 and 5-7 respectively. And while 2011 ranks sixth in per-game attendance over the last 12 years, the average of 46,856 includes 65,050 for the Notre Dame game.

All of which means that Pitt needs to respond to the strong schedule with a stronger performance to maximize the opportunity.

"It's time for a change," senior Aaron Donald said. "The last couple years we've been a 6-6 team, 6-7, and it's time for a change. And Coach (Paul) Chryst is doing it. We're preparing for the ACC like champs."

"We have to play well," Chryst said. "We have to do our part so that it is a place that has that atmosphere and has that environment. And I'm excited; I really am. I hope that we have a great turnout and I'm excited for our players; now we have to make sure that we play well. We have to make sure that we work and get ready to play well."

For his part, Street says the team has maintained its focus.

"We brought it up in the locker room and guys were excited, but it was nothing that we went too overboard on, which is kind of good because I feel like guys are focused. Guys aren't paying attention to the outside things."

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