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Two straight

Allan Joseph | Monday, October 11, 2010

Once again a quick start and ugly finish resulted in a Notre Dame victory. After taking a 17-3 lead into halftime, the Irish held on for a 23-17 victory over Pittsburgh Saturday.

“We got off to a pretty good start offensively, but as we’ve shown, we are really good at stubbing our toe,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “That’s us, so you’re going to have to get used to it, because I’m trying to get used to it.”

Junior quarterback Dayne Crist had one of his best performances of the year, on his 21st birthday, racking up 242 passing yards on 24 completions, including a first-quarter touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Michael Floyd. Crist added a 10-yard scramble for a score midway through the second quarter and did not turn the ball over all day.

“He saw some things today that he feels better about,” Kelly said. “He’s making progress.”

The Panthers opened the scoring halfway through the first quarter with a 26-yard field goal, but the Irish responded with a methodical, fast-paced drive that culminated in the Floyd-Crist connection for the Notre Dame lead. Pittsburgh would miss a field goal before allowing a 15-play, 80-yard drive capped by the Crist run that gave the Irish a 14-3 lead.

“They had us off-balance defensively with the no-huddle offense at a faster tempo than we could have ever practiced,” Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt said. “They did a good job. They were very efficient early.”

The Irish had not shown this tempo in earlier games, but Crist said that it had always been part of the team’s offensive scheme.

“We’ve really been doing it since the summer, and you can just see the way that we operate it, it can be very effective,” he said. “It’s nice being able to switch the tempo at any point in the game.”

Senior kicker David Ruffer added the first of his three field goals in the second quarter to give the Irish a 17-3 lead heading into the locker room, and opened the scoring in the second half with a 50-yard field goal that impressed his coach.

“Nobody would have thought 50 yards was like automatic,” Kelly said. “He kicked that thing into the net — I had to look twice that it was 50 yards. He’s just been outstanding.”

The Irish offense, however, began to sputter just as the Panthers found their rhythm. Pittsburgh found the end zone on a rush from sophomore quarterback Tino Sunseri late in the third quarter and had most of the momentum heading into the fourth quarter.

Notre Dame looked poised to regain control, driving from its own 16-yard line to the Panther 15, but the offense failed to punch the ball into the end zone, leading to Ruffer’s third and final field goal that gave the Irish a 23-10 lead with under ten minutes remaining.

On the ensuing drive, facing third-and-two near midfield, Sunseri rolled to his right and found junior wide receiver Jon Baldwin all alone for a 56-yard score that stunned the home fans and brought Pittsburgh within one score. Though the Irish had contained Baldwin, the Panthers’ most explosive threat, for most of the game, it seemed that he had slipped free at the worst possible time.

“You can’t leave Baldwin by himself all the time,” Kelly said.

When the Irish ran seven plays on the next drive and failed to score even a field goal, sophomore punter Ben Turk was able to pin the Panthers on their own 10-yard line, setting up a three-and-out with just over three minutes remaining.

Notre Dame got the ball back in a position to run out the clock, but failed to convert more than one first down, giving the ball back to Pittsburgh on its own 7-yard line thanks to another punt from Turk.

“We flipped the field position today,” Kelly said. “Ben Turk was outstanding punting the football.”

The Panthers looked to advance down the field and set up a possible game-winning score, but strong defensive line pressure and solid tackling from the secondary set up a fourth-and-four at the Pittsburgh 13. Sunseri looked for his favorite target, Baldwin, but senior cornerback Gary Gray was all over the play and batted the pass down, allowing the Irish to escape with a tight victory.

“We were in good coverage,” Kelly said. “Gary did the right thing, reacted to the football, and came up with a big play.”

When Crist took the final knee to run out the clock, the players celebrated the tight win with special gusto, realizing the significance of the much-needed win. Though the second half was filled with Notre Dame struggles, Kelly wanted his players to enjoy the victory — untill Monday.

“We need to win games, and it’s not a beauty contest yet for us,” he said. “I just told them, ‘Enjoy the win.’ We’ll micromanage this and talk about what we could have done and should have done on Monday. Enjoy the victory. It’s a good win.”

Senior quarterback Darrin Walls, a Pittsburgh native, agreed with his coach.

“It was a great win. It’s always good to beat your hometown team,” he said. “We practiced hard all week and definitely came out with a winning mentality today.”