CHARLOTTE - Moments after finishing their last full college practice, Pittsburgh quarterback Bill Stull and defensive tackle Mick Williams emphasized the importance of their senior class' legacy.
Because of a blown 21-point lead and a botched extra point three weeks earlier, the 17th-ranked Panthers went from a seemingly certain Sugar Bowl berth to a much less prestigious trip here for the Meineke Bowl, where they will face North Carolina todayon Saturday in what is essentially a virtual road game.
It has all the traps that lead to a flat performance: a team that wants to be elsewhere dealing with a hostile crowd.
Stull and Williams vow that won't happen.
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"We want to end this season with a win to possibly, maybe finish in the top 10, get this program back on the map, so to speak," Stull said.
Added Williams: "I want to leave my mark when I leave. I want for my younger teammates to build on this so next year they can make bigger strides. That's why 10 wins is important to me."
Pitt, on a two-game losing streak, hasn't won 10 games since 1981, when Dan Marino was firing tight spirals and the Panthers were regular national championship contenders. And if Pitt (9-3) can overcome the disappointment of being so close to a BCS bowl, its matchup with the Tar Heels (8-4) could be one of the top mid-tier bowl games.
Consider these subplots:
- Pitt freshman running back Dion Lewis, the Big East's offensive player of the year, facing the Tar Heels' stout defense, which ranks sixth in the nation overall and ninth against the run.
- Pitt star receiver Jonathan Baldwin going one-on-one with North Carolina cornerback Kendric Burney, who has returned two of his five interceptions for touchdowns.
- Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt facing old buddy Butch Davis. They worked together on Jimmy Johnson's staffs at Oklahoma State, Miami and with the Dallas Cowboys, winning a national championship and Super Bowl together along the way.
"There's an awful lot of just great memories of our families together, trips that we took with the staff and all of the things that coaching staffs go through," Davis said. "It's rare and unique, I guess, where someone that you spent that much time around and have so much respect for that you end up playing each other."
Davis' Tar Heels didn't envision a second consecutive trip to Charlotte until an upset loss to North Carolina State in the regular-season finale saw them tumble in the ACC's bowl pecking order.
But knocking off Pitt would be a satisfying finish to his third season as he tries to make North Carolina a prominent program. The Tar Heels lost a thriller to West Virginia here last year when Hakeem Nicks' behind-the-back catch wasn't enough to overcome Pat White's late touchdown drive.
"I love it here in Charlotte. It's a nice place, and if I wasn't going to a BCS bowl game, I would love to come back here," said safety Deunta Williams, who has six interceptions. "So it's working out for me and my family gets to come."
North Carolina's defense will be tested by Lewis, the small, soft-spoken tailback who has rushed for 1,640 yards and 16 touchdowns and is only 46 yards shy of Tony Dorsett's freshman season total.
"They're strong, physical and aggressive and pretty fast on defense," Lewis said. "But we've got a lot of confidence in our line and our running game that we can run the ball effectively."
It helps that teams have to keep an eye on Baldwin, who has 1,080 yards receiving, helping Pitt average better than 33 points a game.
Despite averaging a nation-best 3.67 sacks a game, it was Pitt's defense that disappointed in the 45-44 loss to Cincinnati. Now Pitt goes against quarterback T.J. Yates and bruising 245-pound tailback Ryan Houston, who took over when Shaun Draughn was lost for the season.
"We want to show the world that we're a good defensive team," Williams said.
There will be few secrets with the coaches knowing so much about each other and their styles. Wannstedt and his wife are godparents of Davis' son, and Davis and his family attended the wedding of Wannstedt's daughter.
"It's almost uncanny to think about that it was 1979 that I was fortunate enough to join Jimmy's staff and Dave was there," Davis said. "It doesn't sound like a long time ago until you do the math and you figure out that it was 30 years ago."
Don't expect them to take it easy on each other, though. Davis has a program to build, and Wannstedt has plans of making his alma mater a premier program again.
That's why a 10th win is so important, no matter the venue.
"I can judge them just from practice and I've been very pleased," Wannstedt said. "I think our kids want to go out and play good and want to end on a positive note. I think we're sitting right where we need to be."
Nevada linebacker arrested for shoplifting
A Nevada linebacker who did not play in the Hawaii Bowl after he was dismissed by the team had been arrested days earlier on suspicion of shoplifting.
Honolulu police say Andre Davis was detained this week by security at a Waikiki store before he was turned over to authorities.
Nevada coach Chris Ault said Wednesday that Davis had been dismissed from the program.
Former Seminoles given Gator Bowl tickets
Gator Bowl officials are making sure Bobby Bowden's former Florida State players have the chance to see his final game.
The Tallahassee Democrat reports that the Gator Bowl Association and the host city of Jacksonville have made complimentary tickets available to former Seminoles who played for Bowden. As of Wednesday, more than 300 had registered for tickets.