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Defense fails against Panthers

Heather VanHoegarden | Monday, November 15, 2004

Coming into the game, the Notre Dame defense was about the only part of the football team that had been consistent. The run defense was outstanding, and the pass defense was shaky at times, but good enough.

Saturday, that all changed, as the Notre Dame defense was lit up for 41 points, the most ever scored by Pittsburgh against a Notre Dame team in the 62 times the teams have met.

Irish coach Tyrone Willingham said the defense didn’t make plays to start the game. As a result, as the game progressed, it became harder for them to do so.

“Each time you don’t make a play, it makes it more difficult to step up and make it, because it’s all about confidence,” Willingham said. “And those guys have to continue to work and make the plays and get the job done.”

In the first half, the Irish secondary was beat by Pittsburgh quarterback Tyler Palko. The sophomore threw for 214 yards and four touchdowns in the first half alone. Greg Lee was on the receiving end of five of Palko’s throws – good for 95 yards – while tight end Steve Buches caught two touchdown passes. The Panthers beat up on the Irish defense for 267 total first-half yards and 28 first-half points. Every time the Panthers touched the ball in the first half, with the exception of their first possession when Palko fumbled the snap and Irish linebacker Mike Goolsby recovered, they scored. Pittsburgh did not punt in the first half.

“The first half we were not really ourselves defensively,” Willingham said. ” I thought in the second half we came out and put some stops together, and we seemed to get some control of it, but then they slipped in some big plays.”

In the second half, the Irish defense stepped up a bit. They stopped the Panthers three straight times to open the half before giving up a field goal. But the defense let up again, giving up a touchdown with a little over two minutes to play. However, even that wasn’t the dagger.

With just over a minute to play, Pittsburgh got the ball with the game tied 38-38. The Panthers were driving downfield, and it looked like Palko’s pass to Erik Gill was going to be a short completion. But Goolsby went for the strip and missed the tackle. The result was a 36-yard gain to the Notre Dame 33-yard line, setting up the game-winning field goal.

“Going into that series, I was telling the defensive backs to play aggressive and not play scared, and I was thinking the same thing myself,” Goolsby said. “They threw an out to the tight end and I had [the ball] in my hands, but he took it away from me. Then I was trying to strip it, and I couldn’t make the tackle. I was trying to be aggressive.”

Irish defensive coordinator Kent Baer echoed Goolsby’s motivations for going for the ball first instead of the tackle.

“Somebody being aggressive, trying to make a play,” Baer said of Goolsby.

Despite the fact it gave up 41 points, the Irish defense played fairly well in the second half with the exception of the last drive. However, on the game, they did give up 13 fourth quarter points after holding the Panthers scoreless in the third quarter – the only scoreless quarter of the game for either team.

“We made a lot of adjustments [at halftime],” Kent Baer said.

However, it wasn’t enough on senior day for the Irish. The defense was filled with fifth-year seniors playing their last home game at Notre Dame Stadium, but it wasn’t enough for the unit to come through. On the day, the defense surrendered 432 yards of total offense, including 334 in the air and five passing touchdowns by Palko, who threw for the most passing touchdowns ever against Notre Dame. The defense also played a big role in 110 yards of Irish penalties, albeit some questionable.

Arguably the biggest penalty came late in the game on Pittsburgh’s second-to-last drive. Cornerback Preston Jackson was called for pass interference with just under three minutes to play in the game on a fourth-and-10 pass by Palko that was intercepted by Tom Zbikowski in the corner of the end zone. The play was called back due to the penalty, and two plays later, Palko threw for his fifth touchdown to put the Panthers up 38-35 – the only Pittsburgh touchdown of the second half.

But despite a decent second half, the Irish defense knew it didn’t get the job done – especially in the first half.

“We came out with a different attitude [in the second half],” Goolsby said. “We had our head up our you-know-where in the first half, and then just came out with a different attitude.

“We weren’t really focused in the first half defensively.”

Another fifth-year senior, Kyle Budinscak was extremely disappointed with the loss and the play of the defense.

“We let up big plays, especially in the first half, and that ended up being our demise,” he said. “It’s something that’s not easy to talk about now.”