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Pitt game affects future of program

Douglas Farmer | Thursday, October 7, 2010

Not many Notre Dame fans make it a point to see the Pittsburgh game every year. It is not a high-profile rivalry, if it’s a rivalry at all. The Irish and Panthers match-up is rarely a top-25 contest, nor is it historically relevant.

Nonetheless, Saturday’s game will likely determine how fans view, in retrospect, the first five games of Brian Kelly’s career. Saturday’s game will likely determine the direction of the remainder of Notre Dame’s season. Saturday’s game will likely alter next year’s season, and many more to come after that.

All of that from a simple Saturday afternoon facing Dave Wannstedt’s Panthers?

A win Saturday puts the Irish at 3-3. All offseason long fans wondered how Brian Kelly would lead Notre Dame through this season’s first six games, filled with rivalries — Michigan, Boston College — and top-tier teams — Stanford and, before a disappointing start, Pittsburgh.

In August, many Irish fans would have jumped at the chance to be 3-3 after this weekend. Granted, the process of getting to the point where a .500 record is possible has been a roller coaster ride, but nonetheless, three wins are three wins. With three wins, the win over Boston College is no longer simply a sloppy win over a struggling team. The losses to Michigan and Michigan State turn from heartbreakers into growing experiences. Even the loss to Stanford becomes a motivator, rather than a travesty in Notre Dame Stadium.

On the flipside, a loss Saturday puts the Irish at 2-4. That tough opening six-game stretch suddenly becomes a scheduling error.

Fans begin to criticize Notre Dame for not altering from tradition, not scheduling “guarantee” games and, like a broken record, for not joining a conference.

Others will claim Notre Dame will never be able to “return to glory” as it once knew.

The win over Boston College remains a lucky win over a team without a true starting quarterback. The losses to Michigan and Michigan State demonstrate the Big Ten’s superiority. And the loss to Stanford remains an abysmal travesty.

Amazing, isn’t it, how quickly the opinion of hindsight changes, simply hinging on the result of a game against Pittsburgh?

Fans’ opinions are not all that Saturday’s result will affect. Notre Dame’s three games following Pittsburgh — Western Michigan, Navy and Tulsa. — are all very winnable. Entering that stretch as a .500 team, the Irish will know they can exit it at 6-3, with momentum building. If Notre Dame enters that stretch at 2-4, anything could happen in those three games; win them all, split them, or, Brian Kelly forbid, lose them all.

A team two-thirds of the way through the season at 6-3, with a five-game winning streak, is a team that could legitimately pose a threat to any team remaining on its schedule.

On the contrary, a team two-thirds of the way through the season, having just suffered a loss in a game it should have won, is a team poised to disappoint again.

Who knew? Who knew that a home game facing Pittsburgh could hold such an effect? Who knew that Pittsburgh could be the season-defining game for the Irish, rather than the loss to Michigan or Stanford, the win over Boston College, or whatever result Los Angeles holds?

Yet, Saturday’s result could affect even more. During Notre Dame’s three-game losing streak, Brian Kelly and his staff somehow secured the commitments of multiple high-profile recruits. In recent days, however, reports have surfaced questioning the strength of some of those commitments.

If the Irish lose to Pittsburgh, and possibly drop one of the following three, some of those commitments could be completely rescinded.

But if the Irish top the Panthers, recruits would see a Notre Dame program headed in the right direction, headed upwards, readying for its “return to glory.” That result could lead to even more high-profile commitments, and, in theory, those lead to higher-quality teams in the future.

It might seem like a reach, but it would be wise for Notre Dame fans to embrace this game against Pittsburgh. This game’s result will affect how fans view the previous five. This game’s result will alter the rest of the season’s path, and therefore, the path of the program in years to come.

A win over an unranked Pittsburgh team has never been a seminal moment in Notre Dame’s past. But little about Notre Dame today resembles much from its past.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Douglas Farmer at dfarmer1@nd.edu