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With big finish on horizon, Pitt tries to focus on Syracuse

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

If you're a Pitt fan, it's easy to start daydreaming about the final three games of this season.

That closing trifecta could well be the most important stretch of Panthers football since the early 1980s. Let's look at what's at stake:

  • Nov. 14 vs. Notre Dame: An ABC prime-time game at night in Heinz Field versus one of the biggest names in the sport. The Irish could come in ranked in the top 20, and Pitt could deliver a huge statement for its program and the Big East.

  • Nov. 27 at West Virginia: The Backyard Brawl is always big, but this time the Big East title could be on the line as well as Pitt looks to extend its winning streak in this series to three games and extend the Mountaineers' misery.

  • Dec. 5 vs. Cincinnati: This could serve as the Big East championship game. If both teams take care of business, they'll be in the top 10 and playing for the BCS berth.

"It's really exciting," Pittsburgh defensive lineman Mick Williams said of the possibilities. "But right now, we've got to focus on Syracuse."

Ah, yes. As tantalizing as those final three games are, they won't mean nearly as much if Pitt (7-1, 4-0 Big East) doesn't get past a less enthralling home matchup against the Orange (3-5, 0-3) this weekend. The danger is that the Panthers might start peeking ahead, but they say there's no chance of that happening.

"It will not be a trap game," coach Dave Wannstedt said definitively this week.

Wannstedt is 4-0 against Syracuse since taking over at Pitt, but the games haven't always gone smoothly. Last year, the Orange held a double-digit lead before a second-half comeback by the Panthers. Two years ago at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh held off a late rally to win by a single score.

Because of that, Wannstedt said he doesn't need to use a lot of motivational gimmicks or speeches to keep his team concentrating on the task at hand.

"We have a big conference game and we need every ounce of focus and energy for this week," he said. "Then we'll just take the next one and continue that. That's kind of been our mindset. I think that's the type of football team that we are, from being able to handle things and prepare the best way and deal with them."

Syracuse has several distractions of its own this week, including star receiver Mike Williams quitting the team and three other players drawing suspensions. The Orange will have fewer than 60 scholarship players available for this week's game.

But they could rally together and play like they have nothing to lose as a big underdog this week. Pitt, on the other hand, has a lot to lose.

"We know we've got to beat Syracuse to do anything," Mick Williams said. "All around our building, we're all focused. We're going to come out here and do our thing."

If they stay on that track, the Panthers should be able to start thinking about those final three games by Saturday evening.