Pitt knows another loss to Notre Dame won't do this time

Updated: October 6, 2003, 3:55 PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- Pitt has beaten Notre Dame so rarely the Panthers are playing in their third home stadium since last defeating the Fighting Irish in Pittsburgh.

OK, so it was only four years ago. Regardless, the No. 15 Panthers (3-1) have had less success against the Irish (1-3) than any other opponent they play regularly.

Despite a series of coaching changes in South Bend, the Panthers have beaten the Irish only once in 11 games since 1987 -- that 37-27 upset in the final game in Pitt Stadium in 1999.

The Irish have beaten the Panthers the last two seasons, including a 14-6 decision last year in which they were outgained 2-to-1, and haven't lost to them in consecutive seasons since 1986-87.

So, despite the Fighting Irish's 1-3 record, their three-game losing streak, their outside-the-Top 25 stature, Saturday's Notre Dame-Pitt game at Heinz Field is very significant to the No. 15 Panthers (3-1).

Their nearly annual loss to Notre Dame won't do this time. The Irish are struggling not just to win, but to score; they've been held to a combined 26 points in their last three games.

Pitt coach Walt Harris delivered a loud, long, let's-pick-ourselves-off-the-deck speech after a stunning 35-31 loss to Toledo on Sept. 20 knocked Pitt out of the Top 10, but that won't be necessary this week. Even he knows it.

"Any time you have a chance to beat a storied program like Notre Dame, I would think it would be a heck of a compliment for your program," Harris said Monday.

Especially for one that has beaten Notre Dame only seven times in 33 tries since 1961.

Harris' biggest worry is the Irish's week off gave them a chance to get more comfortable with new starting quarterback Brady Quinn, who went 29-of-59 for 297 yards and one touchdown in a 23-10 loss to Purdue on Sept. 27. Quinn's yardage total was the best by a first-time freshman Irish starting quarterback in 53 yards, but it was overshadowed by his four interceptions.

Quinn replaced ineffective senior Carlyle Holiday, who was benched after throwing four interceptions and completing only 49.3 percent of his passes. Harris is familiar with Quinn; Pitt offered Quinn a scholarship, but he chose the Irish instead.

"Brady's now had two weeks to prepare for our defense," Harris said. "It also gave him two weeks to get more confident and comfortable in the offense. He got a lot more time with their offense ... he knows his receivers better and his scheme better."

Likewise, Pitt has had two weeks to prepare for a mostly veteran Notre Dame defense that allowed the Panthers to consistently move the ball between the 20s last season, only to tighten up once Pitt got into scoring range. Pitt led 402-185 in total yardage, but managed only two David Abdul field goals.

Despite the loss, the game was a major step in Pitt quarterback Rod Rutherford's development. After throwing for 313 yards in that game, Rutherford's play improved significantly. Harris credited that game for helping him develop an understanding of what it takes not just to play well in big games, but to win them. And, too, what it takes to finish drives.

This season, Rutherford is 74-of-120 for 1,171 yards, 16 touchdowns and three interceptions and is averaging 292.8 yards passing per game.

"I think the game gave him confidence," Harris said. "I think he felt like, 'If I just continue to put more into it, and be on top of it better, I can perform at a high level.' And he did it."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index