By Matt Popchock


Not only has Pitt been on the mend from a metaphorical stab wound in South Bend, but the Panthers (1-3, 4-5) are heading to Rentschler Field, the scene of a couple of their most ignominious games since Connecticut joined the Big East for football.

Still, they insist their chins remain up, especially on the defensive side of the ball, as they must tighten up their chin straps against the Huskies (0-4, 3-6) tonight at 8:00 in order to rejuvenate their chances of reaching a bowl game.

“I definitely see that confidence in the team, that we can play with anyone if we prepare like we did last week,” said linebacker Joe Trebitz, who actually racked up a dozen tackles in his makeshift starting role versus the Irish. “I like playing on a Friday…because it’s national television, and a chance, again, to prove that we are that good of a team.”

Considering they squandered their last prime time opportunity in Syracuse, to say nothing of the unexpectedly golden opportunity against the Golden Domers that also went to waste, Pitt still bears a great burden of proof.

In particular, the Panthers must prove their stifling defense, which, ultimately, did not carpe the diem against Notre Dame, is sustainable for 60 minutes.

Fellow linebacker Todd Thomas, who has battled through his own health issues to make a difference on “D,” refuses to believe key losses on the depth chart led them to run out of gas against dual-threat quarterback Everett Golson in the fourth quarter and OT.

“No, definitely not. Definitely not. We put it all out on the field until the last play, on offense and defense, and we just didn’t get it done,” Thomas said.

“You could say UConn is in the same position as us. Our record is bad, but we’re not a bad team, and the way we’ve played doesn’t show that. UConn is a good team. We’ll go into this like it’s a regular game, and just play.”

Thomas added he expects Shayne Hale, who forced a potentially game-changing fumble in the end zone during overtime last Saturday, will continue his serviceable play.

Meanwhile, look for tailback Ray Graham also to be a presence this evening, by simple virtue of the fact he is…well, present.

When the Panthers defeated Connecticut, 35-20, in a weeknight game last season at Heinz Field, the last meeting between these teams, Graham suffered a season-ending ACL injury that deprived him of the first 1,000-rushing-yard campaign of his college career. He ended the 2011 season with 958 yards.

“I think it’s going to be a good game. It’s a confidence game, and it could be a good win for us,” said Graham, who enters Friday with 794 yards rushing, and registered almost 200 all-purpose yards and a TD against Notre Dame. “We play to competition a lot this year. We knew Notre Dame was a great team. We had to play to their level, and up a little more.

So will tonight be a repeat of, say, Virginia Tech? Or, heaven forbid, Youngstown State?

One key will be keeping Graham and, for that matter, quarterback Tino Sunseri upright under pressure from redshirt sophomore linebacker Yawin Smallwood, one of the rising stars of the Big East.

“He’s a great player. He gets off the ball, he leads the Big East in sacks, and he’s a guy we know we have to key in on,” redshirt senior offensive lineman Chris Jacobson said.

Hear what else “Lumpy,” Graham, and Trebitz had to say about tonight’s game, and hear the game live at 8:00 on your flagship home of the Panthers, SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan:

Chris Jacobson:

Ray Graham:

Joe Trebitz:

(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)