It didn't take long to realize it wouldn't just be another Saturday. Pitt running back Ray Graham burst through the left side of the Panthers offensive line on their first official play from scrimmage and raced to daylight, scampering 55 yards against one of the best rush defenses in the country, effectively putting Notre Dame on notice that the Panthers came to South Bend to slay the dragon.
And Pitt came close. A 14-point fourth-quarter lead. An interception in Pitt's end zone that stopped an Irish rally and looked like the stake to the heart of Notre Dame's perfect regular season. But the Irish somehow pulled even, with Everett Golson miraculously pushing the game to overtime.
But then came a goal line fumble by Notre Dame's Cierre Wood. All the forward momentum was thrown away as Wood tried to stretch the ball over the goal line. All the Panthers needed to do was get three points and the victory, yet kicker Kevin Harper's 33-yard field goal ended double overtime and sailed wide right. Golson took another shot at the role of hero, gladly saving the Irish season and extended their record to 9-0.
After seeing their dreams nearly dashed by a handful of self-inflicted mistakes, the Irish pulled a win straight from the teeth of disaster. And 12 months later, it still irks some Pitt players.
"I think it's going to be motivation for a lot of guys who played last year," Panthers tight end J.P. Holtz told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "We should have won that football game."
Not many Irish fans who are being honest will argue with Holtz. Nor will they blame him (don't worry, he's not related to Lou), as the Panthers have lost the last three seasons against Notre Dame, with none coming by more than six points.
"They always just play us so hard," Irish head coach Brian Kelly said during his weekly press conference. "A Midwestern team, tough, blue-collar, physical. They don't seem to like Notre Dame very much, and they want to beat Notre Dame. I think it's one of those games where you know you're going to go in and it's going to be a fight. We're prepared for that."
Being prepared and ready are likely two different things for the Irish. Because if fifth-year left guard Chris Watt isn't ready to help take on Pitt All-America candidate Aaron Donald, the nation's leader with 19.5 tackles for loss, it could be a long day. (For reference, Donald had seven tackles last season against a veteran interior line.) That could spell doom for the Irish offensive line.
Yet Watt is the least of the Irish's problems. That's because on the defensive front, the Irish are hoping that Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Sheldon Day will be able to finally play together for the first time since Purdue, reassembling one of the preseason's best defensive lines. Kelly talked about how well Nix has recovered, taking his status from questionable to downright optimistic.
"He will play, and it’s not hypothetical," Kelly said of Nix. "He had a good week of practice, a full week of practice, moving around well."
Nix's conditioning might be an issue, as he's basically all that's available without senior Kona Schwenke ready to step in for him. So into the mix comes sophomore Jarron Jones, pushed to nose guard in a sink-or-swim position, especially this late into the season. If he can't get it done, expect Tyler Stockton to get a shot as well as Justin Utupo, two unused veterans only now getting playing time.
Even while the point spread (currently Notre Dame favored by 4.5) stays close, this is a football game that the Irish can absolutely control. Even with bodies in the front seven missing.
If the Irish are going to take a step forward in the season's final three regular-season games, they'd be wise to learn some lessons from the 29-26 overtime victory. Let's take a look back at some lessons learned during last season's miraculous Houdini act.
Don't let special teams beat you
Just like last week, the Irish played a mediocre game on special teams against Pitt last season. Kyle Brindza missed a short field goal attempt as well as an extra-point kick, leaving four valuable points on the board. The Irish also got killed by return men Lafayette Pitts, who has to be licking his chops after watching the Midshipmen break open return lanes.
Spread the Panthers out to make it harder on Aaron Donald
Even though the Irish ran for 230 yards, the staff decided to spread out the offense and put the game in Everett Golson's hands, if only to keep Donald neutralized. The Irish didn't seem to have much of an answer for him other than Golson scrambling to keep plays alive, something that Tommy Rees isn't exactly primed to do.
A week after running a majority of the offensive plays from two-tight end sets, don't be surprised if Kelly tries to spread out the Panthers.
Contain the Panthers offensive by wreaking havoc on the mismatched offensive line
Brian Kelly has talked all about the big and physical offensive line that Pitt utilizes. He left out the part about the group being a complete mess against decent competition, giving up 25 sacks in the five games Pitt has played against BCS conference teams. Former starting tackles are playing guard. Defensive ends are playing tackle. Paul Chryst built his reputation at Wisconsin around offensive line play. But right now he's waiting for reinforcements.
Quarterback Tom Savage has a great 1-2 punch in Devin Street and Tyler Boyd. But if he can't find time to pass the ball, the Irish could feast in the pass rush. Running the ball doesn't look all that promising either, with the Panthers owning the 105th-best rush offense in the country.
Notre Dame may be short a few key reserves, but if there's a line to get healthy against, Pitt's might be it.
Match the opponent's intensity
Don't expect anything but the best from Pitt. Even after losing back-to-back games to option teams, the Panthers know this Saturday night is going to be different.
"Personally, I don't like Notre Dame at all," Holtz said. "It's just going to make me go harder. I just think they're really cocky, and their coaches are really cocky. I just don't like that. They're just different people there."
The Pitt players have another chance to ruin an Irish season. A loss could send the Irish tumbling out of the polls and have Notre Dame staring two difficult games in the face to close the season, turning a possible 10-2 into 7-5, the type of nightmare finish that got Charlie Weis run out of town.
Last year, the Irish escaped. Against a flawed Pitt team, it doesn't need to be that difficult.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.
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