In a game where the Irish did essentially everything that the preview for this game suggested they needed to do to lose, and essentially none of the things they needed to do to win, Notre Dame suffered a crippling 28-21 loss. As a result, Notre Dame drops out of sight on the national scene and is surely headed for a very minor bowl game.
I will spare the readers and myself a blow by blow account of this miserable contest, but rather highlight some of what turned out to be key moments.
Kelly, who is shockingly cavalier about field position, ridiculously called for a 55-yard field goal attempt on N.D.’s second drive.. On a chilly night, the attempt had no chance and barely made the back of the endzone, setting Pitt up at the 38, whereas a pooch punt could have backed Pitt up.
Fortunately, Pitt could not make N.D. pay and the Irish then went on a long T.D. drive to take a 7-0 lead.
Perhaps the key moment of the game occurred as N.D.’s thin defensive ranks took a brutal hit when star defensive lineman Stephan Tuitt was ejected on a ridiculous targeting call just seconds into the second quarter. Pitt quarterback Savage ducked down as he was being tackled. Tuitt led with his shoulder, but because Savage leaned his head forward their helmets touched and that was enough for the A.C.C. crew to disqualify Tuitt for the rest of game.
Pitt scored a touchdown on that drive and that seemed be all the incentive N.D.’s coaching staff needed to try to make the game a shootout.
N.D. went on a fast-paced drive on its next possession, but it ended with T.J. Jones getting stripped of the ball at the Pitt six yard line. That turnover, unlike the ones that would follow, would turn out to be of little consequence as N.D. held and a good punt return set N.D. up well inside Pitt territory and ended with a touchdown to make it 14-7 Irish going into the second half.
N.D.’s passive defense gave up a long T.D. drive to Pitt early in the third quarter to knot the game at 14-14, but Rees responded with a beautiful strike to Jones for a one play 80 yard touchdown drive that gave N.D. its last lead at 21-14.
Pitt responded with a quick touchdown drive of its own to tie it at 21, and N.D.’s self-destruction was underway.
Set up by a fine kickoff return, N.D. seemed poised to take the lead again as the Irish went deep into Pitt territory again. However, Kelly called McDaniel to run what appeared to be a stretch or outside zone run, which had the powerful McDaniel running east and west rather than north and south, and resulted in a minimal gain. Kelly next dialed up a pass play where Rees threw into double coverage for a devastating interception.
Pitt managed to move the ball a bit on the ensuing drive and a nice punt flipped the field. Rees threw another interception, which was returned to the N.D. five yard line and Pitt easily converted to make the game 28-21.
N.D.’s last gasp was a drive into Pitt territory, but it died on two incompletions with just over two minutes left. N.D., having burnt all of its times out, was powerless to stop the clock and thus ended the game.
N.D.’s defense seldom generated much pressure on Savage, but one of the few times it did the Irish threw away a golden opportunity. Savage was hit with his arm cocked and the ball was knocked out of his hand for a fumble. N.D.’s defense – though no whistle had blown – thought it was an incomplete pass, and the ball practically bounced into Sheldon Day’s hand. Rather than catching it and walking into the endzone he batted it as if it were a beach ball and Pitt retained possession and was able to punt instead.
This was a horrible performance by N.D.’s coaching staff, and a game filled with mental mistakes by veteran players. N.D. was able to run the ball reasonably effectively when they tried, but Tarean Folston, the offensive star of the Navy game, inexplicably only got four carries. N.D.’s defense was utterly vanilla and when it brought pressure clearly showed that it was going to bring pressure allowing Pitt to pick it up. Sack prone Savage was not sacked at all.
To the five questions.
1. Is N.D. smart enough to defer if it wins the coin flip? Nope, not that it mattered much.
2. Can N.D. avoid giving up a touchdown drive on the opponent’s first drive? Yes, this was a bright spot if you want to think of it that way.
3. Can an N.D. running back go over 100 yards? Not even close. N.D. managed only 135 rushing yards, with Atkinson leading the way with 57. Forty one yards went to receiver Jones on ends around.
4. Will the officials be brave enough to call any penalties on Pitt? Yes, but the (at best questionable) ejection of Tuitt was a terrible loss for N.D.
5. Can Rees play turnover free? No, and that was the difference. N.D. has more rushing and passing yards, and (obviously) more total yards, outgaining Pitt by over 100 yards. But N.D. ran only 47 plays to Pitt’s 74 and N.D.’s thin defensive ranks wore down late. The turnovers both cost N.D. scoring chances and gave them to Pitt. Like last year, N.D. lost the turnover battle 3-0 to Pitt, but couldn’t escape this year.