Pitt held its last official practice of the 2012 season on Thursday at Hoover High School. The team will hold one final walk through at Legion Field on Friday, before kickoff on Saturday against Ole Miss.
The amount of confidence the players have at this point is evident. There's a lot of factors contributing to it. One can be finishing the season with two impressive wins over Rutgers and South Florida just to become bowl eligible. Another can be the month layoff, and extra set of practices heading into Saturday's game.
Not shockingly, another major factor can be just having a coaching staff in place. Last year, the team had five coaches on staff, including the interim head coach. This year, despite losing defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable shortly after the season, a lot of the team's confidence comes simply from having a staff in place.
" It's way different," senior defensive back Andrew Taglianetti said. "I remember last year, we didn't practice in our shoulder pads, once. All those circumstances surrounding that bowl game and the departure of our coach, it kind of messed with everything we did. How we approached the whole season. Last year, it was kind of like, ‘we're here, we're here.' This year, it's more business. I think we're really down here to win this year. I'm not saying we weren't last year, but our approach is a lot different. I think, hopefully, we'll find a lot different results."
One player who especially likes the added contact, even something simple as having shoulder pads and helmets for practice this time around, is defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
" We're in full pads this time," Donald said. "Last year, we were just in jerseys and helmets. This year, we're in full pads. I love it. You gotta love it."
Taglianetti said it was grueling to go through this set of practices this type around, but he feels the added intensity will pay off Saturday.
" Right after South Florida, we were really focused on Ole Miss," Taglianetti said. "Practices were tough. We didn't necessarily like that. A lot of scrimmaging, and what not. I think it will pay off. I think it's kept us in game shape, and kept the focus on Ole Miss."
Asked for a turning point of the season, or if maybe the final two wins or the extra month of practices had anything to do with this high level of confidence we've seen this week, Donald had a mixed answer.
" It comes from having those last two games," Donald said. "When you win the game, you're going to be confident. We came strong. We started off slow. We lost a lot of games. The last couple games we finished real strong, real confident heading into this last game. I feel like we're going to come away with a win."
In regards to future plans, Donald, Taglianetti and junior cornerback K'Waun Williams have a mixed bag of options.
Donald, a first-team All-Big East selection, filled out paperwork to get some initial feedback to see where he might fall if he were to declare early. Donald said he has not received feedback yet, but says his plan is to come back for his senior year.
" Right now, I'm just trying to worry about this last game" Donald said. "At the end of the game, I'll worry about that when it comes. I'm worried about beating Ole Miss, right now. "
Williams said he did not file his paperwork, and said he too will come back for his senior year. The thought of playing in the ACC, the direction the program is heading under Chryst and what the team returns in 2013 are all factors for Williams in coming back for his senior year.
"All the guys are improving," Williams said. "Everybody is really starting to buy in. We're starting to see the light. Everybody is buying into what Coach is preaching. It's definitely starting to pay off. You can see the last couple of wins, everybody has been playing hard. It just continued to build over months and games we played. Everybody just started to buy in, and started listening.
"It's definitely going to be different (playing in the ACC). There's going to be better competition, and I'm defintitely looking forward to it."
Interestingly, entering his senior year in 2013, this marks the first time that Williams will play a season with the same head coach coming into spring ball. He feels that also is adding in to the team's increased confidence in bowl prepartions, creating all the more reason for him to come back in his opinion.
"I'm definitely going to be excited moving into spring practice; just to see how the team is going to react," Williams said. "Everything, feeding into the coaching system, now that they've been here a whole year. It's how we're going to embrace it. Get off to a good start in the ACC."
This is the final game for the fifth-year senior Taglianetti. He said he will give the NFL a shot, as he will begin training for the Pitt Pro Day in March. He feels comfortable the team is in good hands after he plays his final snap at Pitt on Saturday.
" I may as well give it a shot," Taglianetti said of an NFL future. "I went through five years of this. I'll never count myself out with that. If not, I'll move on to other things.
" I can't individualize moments. It's been a lot of fun. A lot of learning points, and a lot of highs and lows. When I look back on this when I'm old and sitting on a rocking chair, hopefully retired in Florida, I'm going to look back on this and really proud of what I've accomplished. The friends I met and the experiences I had. Coming to Pitt and playing football here has definitely been the best decision of my life. Hopefully it carries on in my future endeavors, whatever that may be. I can't thank enough everyone who has supported me; the coaches, the players. It's been a lot of fun. Hopefully I can finish this one up strong with a ‘W' on Saturday.
THE GAME ITSELF
As for the actual game, Pitt players have been very impressed with what they have seen on film of Ole Miss. Rebel quarterback Bo Wallace is considered a dual-threat type of quarterback, and dangerous if he gets outside of the pocket. Wallace threw for 2,843 yards and 19 touchdowns. Wallace was the team's second-leading rusher with 363 yards on the ground with 8 touchdowns.
Then, there's the receiving corps. Ole Miss' top four receivers are averaging at least 12.3 yards a catch. Williams says this may be the fastest group of receivers he's seen.
"Overall team speed, definitely," Williams said. "I've seen fast guys. They have guys that are pretty fast. I don't know their 40 times, but their receiving corps is pretty fast."
Donald has a different take on it. He feels Ole Miss' offensive line is pretty physical. However, he takes a Paul Chryst-like approach, that it's still football, and you have to be just as well prepared for every team you face.
" They're different," Donald said. "They have a lot of playmakers on the team. Like every other game. It's just like every other team, I'm getting ready just like I do for every other game. Just working hard and trying to make plays to help the team win."
Taglianetti is an another different position from Williams and Donald. He feels Ole Miss is equally dangerous on the ground as it is through the air.
"A lot of speed, a lot of good athletes," Taglianetti said. "They've played good teams every week. We have to bring our best, for sure. We know it's going to be a tough game, a physical game. I'm looking forward to it. It should be really exciting."