Notre Dame Football: Furious Finale as Irish Survive Pittsburgh in Overtime
It is hard to think that no one saw this coming.
It has become as much Notre Dame tradition as golden helmets or the Victory March.
Win an improbable victory against a national power one week, lose to a mid-level team struggling through a mediocre season the next.
Lou Holtz's 1993 team may be the most notable in the trend, beating No. 1 Florida State, then falling to Boston College the next.
In 2002, Ty Willingham's first Irish squad ran out to an 8-0 start and the No. 5 spot in the national polls after beating Florida State once again before sleepwalking through a date with Boston College.
This year, Brian Kelly's third Irish team matched Willingham's '02 group with an 8-0 start. The team's resume was slightly more impressive netting the no.3 ranking.
The team traveled to Norman, Oklahoma to beat the No. 8 Sooners, finally grabbing attention from the national pollsters.
Then they played Pittsburgh.
Notre Dame lost to Pittsburgh. But somehow they didn't.
Notre Dame did things in the game today that they hadn't done all year.
Settled for field goals. Turned the ball over. Committed a host of bad penalties early. Gave up long runs and made arm tackles rather than wrapping and driving.
They also committed errors that have become commonplace. Missed a field goal. Missed an extra point. Missed wide open receivers. Missed blocking assignments. Punt returns that can only be called a disaster.
Notre Dame came out on the game's opening possession and did anything they wanted to do against a Panther defense that seemed to be outmatched physically until the Irish reached the red zone.
After a seven minute 60+ yard opening drive, the Irish could only manage a field goal.
Pittsburgh signaled that they were here to play on their first play from scrimmage as running back Ray Graham sprinted 60 yards through the Irish line before being tracked down by KieVarie Russell.
Pitt tied the game three plays later.
On the second Irish possession Notre Dame again seemingly effortlessly drove the field, set up with a 1st-and-goal at the Panther two-yard line, and failed to cross the goal line.
From that point Pittsburgh took over.
The Panthers used punishing runs from Graham and pinpoint passes by fifth-year senior Tino Sunseri to build a 20-6 lead headed into the fourth quarter.
As the supposed final stanza began, a dead-all-day Irish offense sprang to life and Notre Dame roared back.
Surviving an interception in the end zone culminating what would have been a 98-yard drive, Everett Golson connected with T.J. Jones for a score, then ran in a two-point conversion to even the score with under two minutes remaining.
Neither team managed positive yardage for the remainder of regulation, and the game went to extra time.
In the first overtime, neither squad managed a first down and traded quick field goals.
On the second overtime possession, Notre Dame's title hopes fell apart as Cierre Wood fumbled as he flew toward the end zone. The ball came loose just before Wood broke the plane and was recovered in the end zone by Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh had only to hold onto the ball.
The Panthers indeed played it safe, running three times straight ahead, gaining eight yards, setting up the game-winning field goal.
And he missed.
On the ensuing possession to begin the third overtime, Kevin Harper did split the uprights to give the Panthers a 26-23 advantage.
Notre Dame then went the full 25 yards in six plays with Everett Golson diving in from one yard out to put the Panthers away.
Pittsburgh did everything they had to do. They bent but did not break. They ran the football effectively. They did not turn the ball over. They scored touchdowns in the red zone and took a multiple-score lead into the fourth quarter.
Yet somehow it slipped away.
After Wood's fumble into the end zone, the game was theirs for the taking. A simple field goal from just inside the right hash to seal the win and play spoiler against Notre Dame, and it sailed just outside the right upright.
Given one final chance at life on a lucky break that hasn't gone Notre Dame's way for decades, the Irish capitalized.
Statistically, the numbers don't add up to the game that everyone watched.
Notre Dame outgained the Panthers 522-to-308. Out rushed Pittsburgh 230-144. Held the ball for 35:23 to Pitt's 23:29.
But Notre Dame's inability to finish drives, especially in the first half, allowed Pittsburgh to remain in command for most of the contest.
In the end the Irish escape.
Everett Golson, despite being removed in favor of Tommy Rees, who was ineffective for the first time this season in relief, took another step toward cementing his status as a leader.
Golson finished 23-of-42 for 227 yards with a pair of touchdowns and one interception. He also carried the ball 15 times for 74 yards, including the equalizing two-point conversion and the game winning score.
The ultimate result tonight is that Notre Dame has reached its best record since 1993 when the team began 10-0 before falling to Boston College.
What is unknown is how the near-loss will resonate with voters who already have Notre Dame rated behind the other three unbeaten teams.
It is possible that despite the win Notre Dame could fall further away from their Championship dreams if Alabama, Kansas State, and Oregon also win.
Should the Irish tumble to No. 4 in the BCS, it will be hard to argue as Pittsburgh should have ended all discussion of a Notre Dame championship.
But Harper's kick sailed inches wide, and the Irish remain alive.
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