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Irish ready for tough Panthers

Notre Dame has not lost to Pittsburgh since coach Brian Kelly arrived three years ago.

But the Irish's previous two victories over the Panthers haven't been easy. Notre Dame edged Pitt 23-17 in 2010, and last year, the Irish eked out a 15-12 victory at Pittsburgh.

Kelly expects more of the same when the No. 4 Irish (8-0), who are No. 3 in the BCS standings, play host to the Panthers (4-4) on Saturday.

"It's going to be a great challenge for us because they will play their very best," Kelly said during his Tuesday news conference.

Getting a team's best is nothing new for Notre Dame when it is playing at home.

The Irish have won their four home games this year by an average margin of five points. On the road or at neutral sites, Notre Dame is winning by an average of 28 points.

"I think teams that come into Notre Dame Stadium play their very, very best," Kelly said. "We have to match that intensity, and we have to do that each and every weekend. It is a battle. There is no question. Our players know that, and we are in the process of understanding how important it is to prepare even for our home games in the same fashion.

"Yeah, it's at home. It's easier. You are sleeping in your own bed. But our guys know they have to play with a lot of energy at home as well."

Pitt should be energized as it has started to save its season after a 2-4 start. The Panthers have won their last two games as the program has adjusted to their latest coach after a year of upheaval.

After Dave Wannstedt resigned Dec. 7, 2010, Pitt hired Michael Haywood, only to fire him 16 days later when he was jailed on a domestic violence charge. Todd Graham was hired Jan. 10, but he left after one season to take over at Arizona State.

That led to Paul Chryst taking over this season.

"I just think they know the plan now," Kelly said of Pitt. "Again, three head coaches, where are we, developing relationships with players. They are in their first year, and I think coach Chryst has done a great job of really forming their identity as a football team.

"They've got now an identity of where they want to go. They will be a formidable opponent on Saturday."

One of the reasons the Panthers will be so formidable is the progress of quarterback Tino Sunseri.

The senior has completed 162 of 234 passes for 2,199 yards with 13 touchdowns and only two interceptions.

"He has really matured as a quarterback, really impressed with his play this year," Kelly said of Sunseri. "He is not turning the football over. Last year, he was similar to what we were going through with some untimely turnovers. He is taking great care of the football. He is a veteran, you can see that. The offense fits him very well, and he can make plays.

"He is a guy who is playing the best football in his entire career at Pittsburgh."