SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Fill up the stadium and strike up the band. That's when Notre Dame linebacker Carlo Calabrese plays his best football.
There's something about that real atmosphere that seems to make Calabrese a better player than he shows on the practice field.
"It's a lot different in the game, speed is different, and just the looks," said Calabrese, a sophomore. "And I just think it's a lot clearer during the games what the team is trying to do, and you know, I just make my reads and just play ball."
Playing on the inside along fellow sophomore and Irish star Manti Te'o, Calabrese had 10 tackles last week while helping the Irish hold Boston College to five rushing yards in a 31-13 win.
Now comes a real test Saturday: Pittsburgh's 1-2 running punch featuring Dion Lewis, who ran through and past the Irish for 152 yards last season, and Ray Graham, who carried 29 times for 277 yards last week in a win over Florida International when Lewis had a sore shoulder.
"I think Graham (5-9, 195) and Lewis (5-8, 195) are kind of identical," Te'o says of the Panthers' sophomores. "Very dynamic, both great athletes and make-you-miss kind of players."
As the guys in the middle of Notre Dame's 3-4 defense, Te'o, the Irish's leading tackler, and Calabrese have formed a bond. They play video games and watch a painting show together to relax during the week.
"Yeah, we got real close this year with me lining up next to him and just watching film with him. We're real close," Calabrese said.
Another member of the Irish defense, cornerback and Pittsburgh native Darrin Walls, could also play an important role Saturday when he goes up against 6-foot-5 Panthers' receiver Jon Baldwin, who had five catches for 142 yards a year ago to lead a 27-22 victory. Baldwin has been adjusting to a new quarterback in Tino Suseri this season but will still have the Irish's attention.
"He catches everything. I haven't really seen any tapes where he's dropping balls," Walls said.
Since Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly and Pitt's Dave Wannstedt faced off three times in the Big East when Kelly was at Cincinnati, there aren't too many secrets.
Kelly's Bearcats clinched an unbeaten regular season with a 45-44 comeback win against the Panthers last December, his last game with Cincinnati before leaving for Notre Dame.
"You got to have some wrinkles. Both of us know each other so well," Kelly said. "You want to tweak some things you've done in the past."
Wannstedt's defense will need to get pressure on Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist, cover receivers stretched across the field and try to take the crowd out of the game. Pitt's played well against Notre Dame, winning the last two meetings, including a four-overtime thriller in South Bend two years ago.
"If you ask our players who have played up there, I think it's a place that they look forward to going," Wannstedt said.
"If you're going to go on the road and play a game and get caught up in the atmosphere, the tradition and everything that goes into a great college football game Notre Dame is a great place to go play."
Just as Pitt recruited Walls, Notre Dame was interested in Panthers guard Lucas Nix, 6-6, 305-pound junior.
Nix, a key blocker for Lewis and Graham, remembers the marathon game at Notre Dame Stadium two years ago, a 36-33 victory.
"Some of these younger guys will get to see a different atmosphere for college football game," he said. "When I went out there two years ago, it was my first time, and it was pretty neat. Everybody knows about 'Rudy' and the Golden Dome. I guess you could say it's like an old-fashioned setting, but once you step on the field, it's all the same. They play football the way everybody else does."