by John Vannie
Notre Dame stared down certain defeat on multiple occasions, but drew upon a reservoir of gritty play and good fortune to outlast Pittsburgh by 29-26 in triple overtime on Saturday. Everett Golson’s one yard sneak provided the winning margin and the only touchdown scored by either team in the extra sessions. The Irish survived a goal line fumble by Cierre Wood in the second overtime and a subsequent 33-yard field goal attempt by Pitt’s Kevin Harper that would have ended the contest.
Golson, who was inconsistent throughout the first three quarters of regulation and twice gave way to Tommy Rees, rallied Notre Dame from 14 points down to tie the game at 20 on a short touchdown pass to Theo Riddick and a diving two point conversion with just over two minutes remaining. The vaunted Irish defense was also gashed several times during the afternoon, but pulled together behind Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt to shut down the surprisingly stubborn Panthers when it mattered most.
The first warning signs of the day flashed when Notre Dame failed to score a touchdown on its first possession despite controlling the ball and driving the length of the field. After holding the Irish to a Kyle Brindza field goal, Pittsburgh served notice as Ray Graham exploded for 55 yards on the first Panther play from scrimmage. A third down sack by Kapron Lewis-Moore forced Pitt to settle for a tying three-pointer, and Notre Dame embarked on another march. This time, the Pittsburgh defense stuffed the Irish in an impressive goal line stand.
Trailing by 6-3 in the second quarter, the Panthers got the better of an exchange of punts to start a drive near midfield. Quarterback Tino Sunseri quickly drove his team for the go-ahead touchdown in only six plays as Graham capped it off by running through the Irish from 15 yards out. Rees was inserted by Coach Brian Kelly late in the period to provide a spark, but Brindza’s missed 43-yarder at the gun to keep the halftime score at 10-6 Pittsburgh.
Rees started the second half for Notre Dame, but his poor throw was picked off by linebacker Eric Williams at the Panther 48. A well-executed screen to tight end J.P. Holtz brought the ball inside the Notre Dame ten yard line, and Holtz caught a touchdown pass on the next play to give Pitt a 17-6 advantage with 5:52 remaining in the third quarter. Golson returned to the game but could not get untracked, and things turned from bad to worse for the desperate Irish.
A 31-yard punt return by Cameron Saddler was followed by a 48-yard burst by Graham, and hope was all but lost in the Stadium. After another Graham surge gave the Panthers a first and goal at the Irish one yard line, Notre Dame somehow found the resolve to keep Pittsburgh out of the end zone. Harper’s field goal with 58 seconds left in the third period stretched the upset-minded visitors’ lead to 20-6 as several Panther players danced and celebrated on their sideline.
Golson converted one fourth down play on the ensuing possession as the Irish drove into Pittsburgh territory, but the Irish were fortunate a few plays later when Pitt was flagged for a questionable pass interference penalty on fourth and four. T. J. Jones caught a flanker screen on the next play and burst 11 yards for a touchdown. Brindza hooked the extra point, however, and Notre Dame trailed by eight at 20-12 with 13:40 left in regulation.
Lafayette Pitts returned Brindza’s kickoff to his own 42, but Sunseri could manage only one first down before the Irish forced a punt. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, the ball was downed on its own two yard line. Golson ignited a long march with a pair of scrambles for 27 and 16 yards, and his pass to Eifert gave the Irish a first and goal from the Panther ten with five minutes left. Two plays later, a poor read by Golson resulted in an interception by K’Waun Williams in the end zone.
With no margin for error and time running short, Nix and Tuitt overpowered Pitt’s offensive line and forced a punt with three minutes on the clock. Operating from midfield, Golson scrambled behind the line until DeVaris Daniels got behind the Panther secondary. Daniels out-maneuvered the defender for the ball and was dragged down at the five yard line. On the very next play, Golson rolled right and found Riddick in the back of the end zone to cut the margin to 20-18 with just over two minutes left.
Needing a two point conversion, Golson drifted to the right and looked to throw back to Eifert on the left side. The play was well-covered, so Golson put on a burst of speed, cut toward daylight and dove into the end zone for the tying points.
Both teams had a chance to win in regulation due to mistakes made by the other. Notre Dame forced a punt with 1:30 left after Pitt failed to run much time off the clock during a three and out, but Davonte Neal fumbled the punt and was very fortunate to recover it at his own 34. The teams then staggered into overtime like two bruised and bloodied heavyweights on rubbery legs.
Neither team was able to record a first down in the opening session, but Harper and Brindza held serve with clutch field goals. The Irish kept the ball on the ground in the second overtime behind Wood, who gave his team a first and goal at the Panther four. Golson ran for two yards, but Wood lost the ball on the next play as he dove toward paydirt. Pitt recovered for a touchback and Sunseri trotted onto the field for what he hoped would be a game-ending series.
The Irish appeared to be demoralized as Graham gained nine yards in two carries, but Nix stopped him cold on the next play to force Harper’s 33-yard attempt to win it. The ball started just wide of the right upright and refused to hook in, and Notre Dame’s dream season remained alive. When Nix and Tuitt sacked Sunseri to open the third extra session, Harper was forced to come right back and kick it again from 44 yards out. He drilled this one to put Pittsburgh ahead by 26-23, but Golson and his mates still had an opportunity to answer.
Riddick followed an 11-yard reception with two runs to the Panther seven, and Golson gave Notre Dame a first down at the one with a six yard draw that almost ended the game. The next play was Notre Dame’s 113th of the day, and the Irish offensive line gave Golson enough of a crease to cap an improbable comeback victory.
Pittsburgh was certainly underrated coming into the contest and played with fire and determination, and it is not fair to say Notre Dame was emotionally flat after last week’s defeat of Oklahoma. The Irish lost the turnover battle by 3-0 and the defense was reduced to mere mortal status by the balanced and patient Pittsburgh attack. Graham was easily the most impressive tailback Notre Dame has seen this season, finishing with 172 yards on 24 carries.
The Irish outgained the Panthers by 520-308, ran 40 more plays and dominated time of possession, but the turnovers were the equalizer until the final play. Let’s review the answers to the pregame questions for additional insights.
Can the Irish secondary hold its own against the tall Panther receivers? Yes. Pitt had no long pass plays and Mike Shanahan’s drops killed a few promising drives.
Will Sunseri be able to maintain his 69% season completion rate? Yes, but his 19 for 29 performance was marred by a disappointing finish.
Which team’s running game will gain traction in the second half? Graham was outstanding, but the Irish trio of Wood, Riddick and Golson combined to match him with a few clutch runs.
Will Golson demonstrate improvement in his ability to find open receivers? It was hardly an artistic passing performance, but his final two passes in regulation to Daniels and Riddick to tie the game erased any and all previous mistakes.
Can Notre Dame repeat its error free performance against Oklahoma? That’s a joke, right? And don’t get me started on the Irish not-so-special teams.
Will TV viewers miss Tom Hammond in the broadcast booth? I certainly did. I was sick of listening to Mike Mayock describe how happy he was to watch that game when I was about ready to have a seizure.
Next stop on this roller coaster is a road trip to Boston College, who lost by 28-14 to the Wake Forest team the Irish will play two weeks hence on Senior Day. Kelly may tell his team to enjoy this victory for 24 hours, but it’s going to take me a lot longer to get my heart rate down to semi-normal.