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Week 9: Pittsburgh

Sam Gans | Monday, November 5, 2012

During most of the second half and overtime of Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh, No. 3 Notre Dame had small odds of ending the day undefeated.

Yet at the game’s conclusion, the scoreboard showed the Irish were still perfect: Notre Dame 29, Pittsburgh 26.

After the Irish (9-0) held the Panthers (4-5, 1-3 Big East) to a field goal in the opening portion of the third overtime, sophomore quarterback Everett Golson plunged into the end zone on a one-yard quarterback sneak to give Notre Dame its first 9-0 start since 1993 in a game that often seemed likely to hand the Irish their first loss of the season.

“We all believe in each other,” Irish senior running back Theo Riddick said. “I think we showed a lot of courage and a lot of belief out there today, because there were a lot of times we could have gave up.”

Pittsburgh and Notre Dame traded field goals in the first overtime and the Irish started with possession in the second overtime, driving to the Pittsburgh two-yard line. On second-and-goal, senior running back Cierre Wood dove into the end zone but fumbled before the goal line and the Panthers recovered.

Pittsburgh gained nine yards on its first three plays of the second overtime and lined up for a game-winning 33-yard attempt, but Panther kicker Kevin Harper pushed the ball wide right, setting up the Irish triumph in the next overtime session.

“We had an opportunity there, a golden opportunity,” Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst said. “We didn’t get it done.”

The missed Panther field goal was not the only close call the Irish escaped. Down 20-6 early in the fourth quarter with the ball at Pittsburgh’s 23-yard line, Golson threw an incomplete pass toward senior tight end Tyler Eifert on 4th-and-four, but Pittsburgh junior defensive back K’Waun Williams committed pass interference.

The next play, Golson rolled to his right and slung the ball across the field to junior receiver T.J. Jones, who raced to the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown. The extra point was no good.

After the Irish defense stopped the Panthers, the Notre Dame offense took over on its two-yard line down eight with 9:57 left in regulation. Golson orchestrated a drive into the Pittsburgh red zone, but Williams intercepted the sophomore in the end zone with 3:59 remaining.

“It was just a bad pass,” Golson said. “It was a horrible read, but I think even with the read I made, if I get that ball up a little bit to [sophomore tight end] Troy [Niklas], it’s a touchdown in back of the end zone.”

The Irish defense notched a three-and-out after the interception and Golson took over once again from the 50-yard line with 3:03 to play. On the first play of the drive, Golson bought time in the pocket before he heaved a 45-yard pass to sophomore receiver DaVaris Daniels.

“I think the whole week I’ve kind of been on DaVaris about when a play breaks down, improvising and just getting open, and he did it one time before,” Golson said. “But I was so fortunate that he did that. You know, that’s what I was just trying to do, was just improvise.”

The next play, Golson was flushed out of the pocket but found Riddick in the end zone to pull the Irish within two with 2:11 left in the fourth quarter.

On the two-point conversion, Golson rolled to his right looking for a receiver before tucking the ball and diving for the end zone.

“It’s a three-pronged play,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “The first part of it is a sprint out, rollout, man-to-man, rollover to [senior receiver] Robby Toma. The second element is a clear out and delay for Eifert to come back and then the third is the quarterback to keep it.”

The Irish drove 60 yards on the game’s opening drive, but were forced to settle for a 37-yard field goal from sophomore kicker Kyle Brindza. Pittsburgh senior running back Ray Graham broke a 55-yard run on the Panthers’ first play from scrimmage, which led to a Harper field goal to tie.

The Irish sustained another long drive that reached the one-yard line but again only mustered three points. The Panthers responded with a 16-yard touchdown run by Graham to take a 10-6 lead with 3:55 left in the half.

Despite a 43-22 advantage in the number of plays and possession of the ball for 19:26 in the first half, the Irish went into halftime down 10-6.

Notre Dame began the second half with junior Tommy Rees at quarterback. But after a Rees interception on the second drive of the half, Kelly chose Golson the rest of the way.

“[Everett] missed a number of things that we thought he needed to have down by this time,” Kelly said. “[I] brought Tommy in, had an untimely turnover and went back to Everett.”

Pittsburgh extended its lead to 17-6 when redshirt senior quarterback Tino Sunseri found freshman tight end J.P. Holtz on a nine-yard touchdown pass.

Later in the third quarter, the Panthers drove deep in Notre Dame territory after a 48-yard run from Graham, but the Irish defense stiffened and held Pittsburgh to a field goal.

Notre Dame carried that momentum the rest of the game, as Pittsburgh gained only 21 total yards in the fourth quarter and overtime combined.

“We went back to the basics,” senior captain and linebacker Manti Te’o said. “If [Graham is] running in your gap, stay in your gap. We understand Ray Graham is a really good running back … and in the fourth quarter, [we said], ‘Everybody, stay in your field, do your responsibility and let Ray come to you.'”

Though Notre Dame’s performance was subpar at times, the Irish remained one of just six undefeated teams in the FBS.

“It feels great,” senior captain and tackle Zack Martin said. “That’s the biggest message in that locker room. We’re 9-0. We’re still undefeated. And although we had a lot of mistakes and we have a lot of things to clean up, we’ve still got that ‘zero’ on our record.”

The Irish look to secure a double-digit win season for the first time since 2006 when they travel to Chestnut Hill, Mass., to face Boston College on Saturday at 8 p.m.

 

Contact Sam Gans at sgans@nd.edu