PITTSBURGH - Pittsburgh's players are talking a good game after not playing an especially good one.
The theme is a familiar one for the Panthers: They want to upset West Virginia on Thanksgiving night and scramble what appears to be a locked-up Big East Conference race.
"Everybody is talking about it," linebacker H.B. Blades said. "It's going to be a dirty, physical game. They don't like us and we don't like them. There's a lot on the line for us. Beating West Virginia would change a lot about our season, there's no doubt."
Quarterback Tyler Palko echoed his words, saying, "We've got a lot of stuff to play for. It's a big game for us - we can get a bowl bid if we win."
The Panthers' enthusiasm is commendable, considering how poorly they played on offense in a 24-0 victory Saturday over Connecticut. But any parallels between last November and this one are difficult to find.
A year ago, before surprising West Virginia 16-13 on Thanksgiving night in Pittsburgh and being rewarded with an unexpected trip to the Fiesta Bowl for doing so, Pitt was in the midst of winning six of its last seven. Palko led a series of comeback victories, one at Notre Dame and another against the Mountaineers, throwing 17 touchdown passes and two interceptions in his final six games.
Against UConn, Palko looked as if he was running a revamped Pitt offense for the first time - a season-long problem for a player who doesn't seem to know if he's running a passing- or a rushing-based offense. He threw for 116 yards, about half his average down the stretch a year ago, in a game decided mostly by a blocked field-goal attempt and a deflected punt that both led to touchdowns.
Also, Pitt (5-5, 4-2 Big East) hasn't won on the road since beating South Florida in December, going 0-4 this season. Pitt lost two weeks ago at No. 18 Louisville 42-20.
It doesn't sound like a team primed to surprise the No. 13 Mountaineers (8-1, 5-0) for the second year in a row; last year's last-minute loss at Heinz Field cost West Virginia the BCS bowl trip that instead went to Pitt. This time, West Virginia can lock up an unbeaten conference season by beating Pitt and South Florida (5-3, 3-1) on Dec. 3.
A loss sends the Panthers to their first losing season since 1999 and breaks the string of five consecutive bowl appearances they had under former coach Walt Harris.
"I wish we could start over, turn the calendar and start training camp again but we can't," coach Dave Wannstedt said. "But we do have a game left, and it's a big game."
Winning would send the Panthers to a minor bowl game in a year they haven't accomplished much. The Panthers started it by losing 42-21 at home to Notre Dame as the No. 23 team in the country, and they have gotten back to .500 only by winning five consecutive home games against mostly mediocre opposition (Cincinnati, South Florida, Syracuse, UConn and Division I-AA Youngstown State).
Still, the Panthers were encouraged by the defense's play in shutting out UConn.
"We're excited about playing West Virginia," said cornerback Josh Lay, who returned a blocked field goal 71 yards for a touchdown. "We're going down there for another shutout."