Off the record: Harris says Pitt must overlook ND's 1-3 mark

Updated: October 10, 2003, 1:11 PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh coach Walt Harris sometimes jokes with reporters about what they write. This week, he also wouldn't mind doing some editing for them.

Harris wishes he could eliminate any reference to Notre Dame's 1-3 record, saying it doesn't truly reflect the skill level of the team No. 15 Pittsburgh (3-1) plays Saturday night.

While Pitt has beaten only two Mid-American Conference teams and a Texas A&M team that lost by 31 points to Texas Tech last week, Notre Dame is playing its fifth consecutive ranked opponent. The Irish defeated No. 12 Washington State and lost to No. 18 Purdue, No. 20 Michigan and No. 21 Michigan State.

That's why Harris stressed to his players in practice that, despite the Fighting Irish's record, this is a significant upgrade in opposition.

"Notre Dame has played some excellent football teams, some nationally ranked caliber teams," Harris said. "I think we are going to be playing a much different football team than those first four teams we faced. This is a more challenging team than people think."

So far, Notre Dame's biggest challenge has been regaining the magic touch for pulling out tight victories it had while starting 8-0 last season under new coach Tyrone Willingham.

The Irish have since lost six of nine, scoring more than 16 points only once in their last six games. The offense's struggles finally prompted Willingham to bench quarterback Carlyle Holiday and replace him with freshman Brady Quinn before a 23-10 loss to Purdue on Sept. 27.

Quinn passed for 297 yards and a touchdown but also threw four interceptions and didn't get much help from his running game. No Irish runner has gained more than 42 yards in the last three games on a team that averages only 91 yards rushing.

"We've got to be committed to the run, we have to be patient with the run, and it's very difficult to be patient because the only thing that makes you really patient is success at it," Willingham said.

Running back Julius Jones said, "We feel like we're close every week, but that doesn't mean anything unless you go out and do it."

So far, most of the Irish's games have fallen into a pattern: they get behind early, then struggle to catch up because they can't move the ball consistently. There's no breather in the schedule, either; No. 9 Southern California, Boston College and No. 5 Florida State follow Pitt.

Another potential problem: The Irish have yet to score a touchdown in the first quarter -- a trend that, if it continues, could make it difficult to generate much momentum in their first visit to Heinz Field.

The stadium has been sold out for weeks, forcing Pitt to put standing-room only tickets on sale. The Panthers are hoping for an atmosphere much like that in their final game at Pitt Stadium in 1999, when they upset Notre Dame 37-27.

Notre Dame didn't do much offensively against Pitt last season, generating only 185 yards, but won 14-6 by repeatedly turning the Panthers away inside the 20. Rod Rutherford was sacked eight times and the Panthers also had three turnovers.

This season, the offense has been all Harris could ask it to be, averaging 38.2 points and 465.5 yards as Rutherford leads the nation in passing efficiency and playmaking sophomore Larry Fitzgerald tops Division I-A in receiving yardage. But Pitt's defense has been a disappointment to Harris, allowing 61 points and 1,095 yards in its last two games against unranked Toledo (a 35-31 loss) and Texas A&M (a 37-26 victory).

Rutherford has thrown 16 touchdown passes -- nine to Fitzgerald -- and only three interceptions. Running back Brandon Miree has yet to have a big game, but is averaging 82.7 yards rushing.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index