You could blame head coach Brian Kelly for Notre Dame's 28-21 loss to Pittsburgh.
The Fighting Irish appeared to revert to Michigan game mode, as they simply gave up trying to run, finishing with just 25 total carries on the night. After a 140-yard breakout performance a week ago against Navy, freshman Tarean Folston had just four touches for 13 yards against the Panthers. With the Irish tied or ahead for the first 50 minutes, the lack of running plays called by Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin was puzzling.
The criticism of Kelly's strategy begins on the second drive of the game when he ordered a 55-yard field goal attempt by Kyle Brindza on a 4th-and-3 play. No kicker, college or NFL, has ever made a 55-yard field goal at Heinz Field, known for its unfavorable kicking conditions. Brindza's kick, predictably, fell short.
There was another strange decision by Kelly in the fourth quarter to decline a penalty that would have forced Pittsburgh into a 1st-and-15 situation rather than 2nd-and-6. Pitt converted the first down on the next play. While the Panthers ultimately punted on the drive, the decision likely cost Notre Dame some valuable field position.
Kelly generally isn't hesitant to use a timeout when he feels that he needs one. Facing a fourth down on the final drive, Kelly used his final timeout with 2:33 remaining. After the Irish failed to convert, Pitt was able to run out the clock. Had Notre Dame not used the timeout, it could have potentially gotten the ball back with around one minute remaining if the Panthers went three-and-out.
You could blame quarterback Tommy Rees for Notre Dame's 28-21 loss to Pittsburgh.
The senior signal-caller played perhaps the worst game of his Fighting Irish career Saturday night, completing just 18 of 38 pass attempts and throwing two costly interceptions. Both interceptions were strictly on Rees, unlike one of his two against Navy where a receiver slipped. After an impressive October, Rees reverted to the quarterback whose terribly timed turnovers would dig the Irish holes from which they could not recover.
His first interception came with the game tied and Notre Dame inside the 5-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Rees rolled right and threw a soft lob into triple coverage in the back of the end zone, which Pittsburgh's Ray Vinopal easily intercepted.
After a Pittsburgh punt (more on that drive later), Notre Dame took over with the game still tied with 11 minutes to play. Rees appeared to be targeting Davaris Daniels on a seam route but again threw into an area with three Pittsburgh defenders and again was intercepted by Vinopal. After Vinopal returned it inside the 10-yard line, the Panthers needed just two plays to score the game-winning touchdown.
You could blame wide receiver TJ Jones for Notre Dame's 28-21 loss to Pittsburgh.
After Pittsburgh tied the game at 7-7 early in the second quarter, Notre Dame was about answer when Rees found Jones streaking down the middle of the field. Jones nearly scored on what ended up as a 34-yard reception, but he was stripped by Vinopal inside the 10-yard line. The Panthers recovered the fumble.
All in all, Jones had a productive night with 190 total yards, a rushing touchdown and a receiving touchdown, but the fumble began a sequence of events in which the Irish could not stay out of their own way for the rest of the night.
You could blame defensive end Sheldon Day for Notre Dame's 28-21 loss to Pittsburgh.
Prince Shembo blew past Panthers offensive tackle T.J. Clemmings to force a fumble by quarterback Tom Savage. The ball bounced right into the arms of Day, who, thinking it was a forward pass and the play was dead, nonchalantly batted it into the air.
Had Day caught the ball and immediately taken off toward the end zone, he may have been able to outrun the Panthers chasing him. At the very least, Notre Dame should have taken over in field-goal range. Instead, Pittsburgh punted. Two plays later, Rees tossed the game-changing interception.
You could blame Notre Dame's secondary for Notre Dame's 28-21 loss to Pittsburgh.
The Panthers entered Saturday night's game ranked 10th in the ACC in passing offense. Notre Dame made it look like they were 10th in the nation, allowing a 63-yard touchdown to Devin Street, aided by a missed tackle by Matthias Farley.
Cornerback Bennett Jackson, who gets by more on will and intelligence than technique and athleticism, committed a questionable but costly pass-interference penalty on a fourth-down play to keep a Pittsburgh drive alive that culminated three plays later with a short touchdown run to tie the game at 14-14.
You could blame the officiating for Notre Dame's 28-21 loss to Pittsburgh.
The most controversial penalty of perhaps the entire day in college football was preseason All-American defensive end Stephon Tuitt's ejection for targeting on the first play of the second quarter. Savage scrambled and ducked his head just prior to contact with Tuitt, who lowered his shoulder to make the hit.
While there have been similar ejections for infractions that appeared to be nothing close to targeting around the nation this season, the bottom line is that the call should not have been made. Longtime NFL Vice President of Officiating Mike Pereira offered his criticism of the penalty on Twitter.
Please don't ask me about the targeting ejection at ND. I despise the rule. An ejection for that?? Part of the tackle in my opinion.— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) November 10, 2013
There was also the pass-interference penalty on Jackson on a throw that may have been tipped by Matthias Farley, which by rule would negate any pass-interference call. The call stood, however, and Pittsburgh scored the game-tying touchdown minutes later.
My point with this not to chastise everyone associated with the program, but simply to point out that it required a meltdown from all facets of the team to lose a game that should never have been lost given the talent gap between the Irish and Panthers.
The effects of the loss, although they'll never be fully known, are likely minimal. Notre Dame would have needed to be nearly flawless to beat Stanford and earn a BCS berth at 10-2. Assuming a loss there, there is no difference in bowl options for a 9-3 Irish team, an 8-4 Irish team or a 7-5 Irish team. None of the choices will be the pick of the litter.
If you're looking for the right placement of blame for Saturday's night 28-21 loss to Pittsburgh, it's fairly simple. Blame Notre Dame.