I have the privilege of being a student at Pitt and attend every home game. I wanted to offer some thoughts from the my perspective as a student fan.
I sat through the Cincinnati game in 2009, when I watched the Panthers lose a BCS Bowl bid in front of my blistering cold face. I watched Pitt come out on top against Notre Dame in the same season, even though the Irish came in to Heinz Field boasting a fan base as vast as the home team's.
In essence, the "privilege" that I mentioned earlier was not always necessarily what some would consider a privilege. Watching this team fail, year after year, including the humiliating defeats at the hands of Miami and West Virginia last year on national television, has been miserable. Now, there's a new coach, new offense, new feeling of rebirth and another chance at success. Heading into Thursday night, all of these things had amounted to a 2-2 record with wins against teams that most people have never heard of and losses to the teams that are recognizable. Coming in to Thursday's game against a ranked opponent on national television, this was a must win game to start Big East conference play off on the right foot.
Just before the game, the stadium slowly started to come alive. In one of the worst showings in attendance that I have ever seen at Heinz Field, the place was surprisingly as electric as I had ever seen it. When the offense started putting up points and Ray Graham started making the South Florida defense look like a Pop Warner squad, the place was wired.
Like I said, I was there for that Cincinnati game, the Backyard Brawls, the Notre Dame games. I've heard the 65,000+ fans at a sold out Heinz Field all screaming at the top of their lungs on those days and nights. In this pitiful showing of attendance on a Thursday night in late September, rain falling from the sky and South Florida hopes falling just as fast, the student section had finally come alive. When B.J. Daniels took snaps in the third quarter near the closed end of the stadium, he had to have had trouble making changes at the line. We were screaming at the top of our lungs ... excited, rejuvenated.
For the first time since last season, we were jumping up and down like it was the Oakland Zoo is for basketball games. For the first time this season, we believed that the Panthers could actually make something of the remaining games. And for the first time in years as a Pitt fan, I couldn't wait to see how the offense was going to progress and put up even more points.
In the Pitt student section, it's a common practice to raise girls (or even petite guys depending on the situation) in the air after a score. Each repetition signifies a point scored by the beloved team. We started with Tino's touchdown run in the first quarter and the extra point - seven reps. Then came a field goal - ten reps. Then another field goal - 13 reps. By the end of the game, my friends and I had lifted this random girl that had volunteered to be our aerial representative in to the air 196 times.
Oregon's mascot does push-ups when they score points. He (or she for that matter) does this every game for the high-powered, fast-paced, breathtaking offense that the Ducks run. It has been said that Pitt wants to mimic that offense in production and speed. For one night, anyway, they did just that.
On Thursday in this meager showing of attendance on a Thursday night in late September with rain falling from the sky (and, ironically, South Florida's Big East hopes possibly falling just as fast), the student section had finally felt as if they were a part of something to be proud of. We cheered, we screamed, we and laughed. We got rained on. We watched Ray Graham play his heart out and saw a team blossom in front of our eyes. We watched touchdowns on offense and strong play on defense. But most of all, we watched the Pitt Panthers evolve into what we hope will be a National Championship contender down the line.
I've watched Pitt dominate teams before, but rare are the times that Pitt manhandles a top 25 opponent. I don't know that I've ever watched Pitt outscore a top ten offense or see the defense pitch a shutout in the second half against one. With all of that in mind, I've also never been as excited about Pitt football as I am right now.
I can't wait for what's to come of this team. Pitt has a massive following of fans and supporters ready to jump back on the wagon and cheer this team to victory. After years of disappointment, an empty stadium was what they needed to realize where they were at in terms of producing for the people who care about them. In light of that, they put on one of the best shows that I have seen in years by any Panther team. Now that they have gotten everyone's attention. it's time to hold it, secure it, and take that attention all the way to a BCS game in January.
If Pitt plays the way that it did Thursday every week for the rest of the season, look for them to not only go to a BCS Bowl game, but maybe even win. This is what these fans, alumni, and students all needed to see before they could have any faith at all in this football team. The players have done their part and now it's time for the fans to step up in the way of attendance.