By ALAN ROBINSON
AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH -- Defensive back Eric Thatcher knows how quickly a Pitt football season can change. Not for the better, either.
The Panthers opened 6-1 in coach Dave Wannstedt's second season in 2006, tying their best opening record in the previous quarter-century. One more victory would have assured a winning season and bowl game appearance.
The Panthers never got that win. They lost their final five to finish 6-6. They still haven't had a winning season or made a bowl appearance since former coach Walt Harris left following the 2004 season.
Thatcher, who remembers the 2006 season all too well, is hoping last week's 54-34 loss to Rutgers doesn't foretell a similar second-half letdown for these Panthers (5-2).
The problem: This Pitt schedule resembles that of 2006, when most of the difficult opponents showed up during the second half of the season. Up next is Notre Dame (5-2) on the road Saturday.
"Everything just went downhill (in 2006)," Thatcher said. "The city, the fans were all on our bandwagon, but in the end it was just us and the coaches and everybody else in the locker room. So that's what we have to draw on as we go down the stretch this season."
Pitt was ranked No. 17 before losing to Rutgers, a defeat made worse by the breakdown of the Panthers' secondary. Rutgers' Mike Teel threw six touchdown passes after having only three in his first seven games for a team that wasn't averaging two touchdowns per game.
A major worry for Pitt is that Notre Dame (5-2) also throws the ball. The Fighting Irish are followed four other teams with only two losses each: Louisville (5-2), Cincinnati (5-2), West Virginia (5-2) and Connecticut (6-2).
Three of the final five are on the road, with only Louisville and West Virginia at home.
Still, Thatcher thinks this team is capable of ending the season not like the '06 Panthers, but the '04 team.
"That's what we need to do this year (play like the 2004 Panthers)," Thatcher said. "That team found a way to win and ended up in the Fiesta Bowl."
The 2004 Panthers started 2-2, barely beating Temple after going into overtime to defeat Division I-AA Furman. They pulled off a desperation rally to tie Boston College before winning 20-17 in overtime.
But Harris' final Pitt team had an impressive closing stretch, beating Notre Dame 41-38, topping South Florida 43-14 on the road and edging West Virginia 16-13 with another late comeback.
"We know that anything can happen at any time, so we can't get too comfortable," defensive end Greg Romeus said. "We were just on a winning streak, and now we don't want to go on a losing streak. We know what we have to do. We have to grow from this (Rutgers) loss and can't let it define our season."
There's another problem: Pitt's offensive line has been shaken up because center Robb Houser broke his left ankle against Rutgers and was lost for the season. C.J. Davis moves from left guard to center, where he will go against 310-pound Irish lineman Ian Williams, with fifth-year lineman Dom Williams expected to start at left guard.
Dom Williams started against Notre Dame during Pitt's season-opening 42-21 loss in 2005, but went to the bench shortly after that as Davis took over. Now, Williams may find himself starting against Notre Dame again.
Pitt's secondary knows it will be tested early by Fighting Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen, especially given the ease with which Teel operated while throwing five TD passes in the first half last weekend.
"For us, we're facing a challenge," defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said. "Let's not kid ourselves. We're facing a team that's capable of a big game. If it (practice) is any indication, we had a real sense of urgency that I believe was missing Saturday."