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The Panthers have won two of the last three in the series, including a 27-22 victory at Heinz Field in 2009. Yet that was under former coach Dave Wannstedt, whose plodding attack and underachieving teams eventually paved the way to his exit.

Graham knows his job is to take the Panthers to the next level. He didn’t anticipate the ACC being part of the equation, but he’s doing his best to block out the distraction.

The truth is only the current freshmen on the team will still be around when the move become official. There are plenty of games to win and statements between now and 2014.

“I guess people get excited because they’re an independent school,” Pitt running back Ray Graham said. “They always have tough games, so everybody wants to play them. And Notre Dame has a great tradition. So, playing against them is a good thing, but getting a win against them makes it that much better.”

Pitt is just in year one of its makeover. The Irish are in year two and appear to be hitting their stride under freshman quarterback Tommy Rees, who played efficiently against the Spartans last week and hung in there despite getting knocked around.

“He’s not scared to take hits,” said wide receiver Michael Floyd. “He knows what he’s doing, and if he has something to say to you, or if you’re not running a route or not getting that block, he’ll tell you. He has that kind of swagger about him, you know, that not too many people have, but when he says something, you respect him.”

The Panthers are hoping to earn some respect themselves. Graham has repeatedly called this group the best team he’s ever inherited. Yet after ho-hum wins over Buffalo and Maine and a meltdown against Iowa, it still hasn’t acted like it, not for 60 minutes anyway.

“We just have to finish,” said defensive lineman Chas Alecxih. “We took our foot off their throat, and we can’t do that if we want to be successful. So, we’re not going to do that any more.”