With its 27-6 win over Rutgers, Pitt has a chance to become bowl eligible for the fifth straight season with a victory at South Florida Saturday.
Bowl games are important for a number of reasons. They send the seniors out the right way. They provide the younger players 15 extra practices to get better while also serving as a springboard into the 2013 season. More than anything, a bowl game is another chance to play football.
The players are approaching this weekend's showdown like a one-game playoff.
"I'm glad they're talking that way," head coach Paul Chryst said Monday, "and we've got to make sure their actions show that. But feel good about the indications I've gotten and coaches have gotten, you feel good. We've got to take that and transfer to playing well on Saturday."
Even for the head coach, playing another game means a lot, but he knows the Panthers have to earn it this weekend.
"I love anytime you get to go play more football," Chryst said. "We've got to go earn it, and I like that part of it. When you go to a bowl, you've done enough to earn the right to play another game."
Real last game
Emotions were running high during Saturday's win as it was senior day for 18 players on Pitt's roster. However, this weekend will be their actual last regular-season game, and with a bowl game at steak, emotions figure to be high again.
"I think it's great we're playing for something very significant," Chryst said. "Emotion carries you so far, but then you've got to play well. You've got to focus on that. We talked about it last week. Enjoy the emotional part of having your parents, those who you love and love you being there. Whatever those emotions are, take them in. And then, go play."
Still, it will be no easy task defeating the Bulls. Though South Florida has struggled to a 3-8 record this season and doesn't have starting quarterback B.J. Daniels at the helm, Pitt has played down to its competition at points this season. It's something Chryst wants to avoid Saturday.
"Shame on us if we don't have the right attitude," he said. "It also means to me you haven't watched much tape. You throw on the film and I see talented players, and I know they're well coached. That would be a big mistake, not respecting any opponent, but certainly this one."
After moving into third on Pitt's all-time rushing yardage list against Rutgers, senior running back Ray Graham looks to take over second place Saturday. His 3,177 yards sits just 15 yards behind Curvin Richards (3,192 from 1988-90).
However, there's another milestone that's eluded Graham's time here, and that's reaching the 1,000-yard mark. He came close last year, gaining 958 yards in just over seven games of action. Graham enters the South Florida game with 948 rushing yards in 2012.
"He's rushed for so many yards, and you appreciate that, but no one does it on their own," Chryst said. "The neat thing is the teams I've been around, the groups of guys I've been around, they've got that. I think Ray would also admit that. I've seen lineman be more proud of a 1,000-yard rusher than the back. That's the great thing when you've got a good team...
"I think it's still a significant milestone. He hasn't done it yet, but I think there's a lot as a team to play for and some of the individual things are a by-product of that. The thing I love about those is you have to go do it."
The bigger story is Graham getting to this point after a devastating injury last season after suffering an ACL injury last October. Chryst said he's noticed a change in Graham's running in the past few games, and the senior needs to keep that up.
"You guys all saw it. It wasn't really until the last three and four games," Chryst said. "I think him taking the brace off was significant in a lot of ways. For the first time, I think he felt confidence, and we're going to need him to be good. He has to be good for us if we want to win."
With a clean performance against Rutgers, fifth-year senior quarterback Tino Sunseri has thrown 245 consecutive passes without an interception. It's the longest active streak in the country.
"I think it's a culmination of a lot of things," Chryst said. "One of the things we talk about is what's it like, what does experience give you. Yeah, a new system, but he understands the importance of taking care of the football. I think that comes from experience and comes from being burned on it. He's grown up with it. We are growing, and I think we're still growing in all areas of what we're doing, certainly the passing game.
"The more that you have an understanding that you can trust things, maybe cut it loose a little sooner or know that's not where I want to go with it. We've got to prove it."
After injuring his ribs against Rutgers, redshirt junior Devin Street is feeling much better and did a little bit in workouts Sunday, according to Chryst. He said the receiver seems alright, but they'll know more as practice goes on this week.
In Street's absence, fellow redshirt junior Ed Tinker stepped up, catching two passes for 17 yards and a score. Tinker had been working with the scout team for the last couple weeks but contributed when needed.
"He had his moment," Chryst said. "Now, can he add on to it? Absolutely, but you can't take that away from him. He should do that. You go in here and practice. They're all good enough to make plays.
"I like the fact that Tino didn't hesitate to go to him. I thought it was good. We need depth, and we need him to grow, but you're certainly happy when guys have a chance to do something significant."
Heinz Field Happy
Chryst received many warnings prior to Pitt's game this weekend about the condition of Heinz Field. Usually at this time of year, the grass is beat up from Pitt and Pittsburgh Steeler home games, and it's amplified Thanksgiving weekend when Heinz Field hosts four high school championship games on Friday.
Despite all the doom and gloom prior to Saturday, Chryst made a point to comment on the conditions.
"The field was in great shape," he said. "I was hoping it would be a little bit more beat up, but it wasn't. It really wasn't. I was shocked."
Chryst announced three personnel moves Monday morning prior to his press conference. Redshirt freshman defensive back Steve Williams has been dismissed from the team for disciplinary reasons. Also, linebacker Jason Frimpong and safety Roderick Ryles have left the team and will transfer.
Chryst would not make any further comment.