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First Half Recap: Irish 14, Pittsburgh 7

Joseph Monardo | Saturday, November 9, 2013

In their 69th encounter, as part of a series that began in 1909, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh were facing expectations for a closely-contested game Saturday in Heinz Field. Last season the Irish escaped in triple overtime with a 29-26 home win, and over the last five years the average margin of victory in the series has been four points. Notre Dame sat in the driver’s seat after one half of this year’s matchup, leading the home team 14-7.
The opening drives fit the theme of recent years, if not in terms of outstanding play at least in terms of back-and-forth action. Notre Dame (7-2) elected to receive to start the game but, following a first-down drop by Irish senior receiver TJ Jones and a deflected pass on third down, had to punt the ball away after a three-and-out. After a 49-yard punt by Irish senior kicker Kyle Brindza, Pittsburgh (4-4, 2-3 ACC) got underway from the 25 yard line and traveled 30 yards on seven plays before having to punt, as well. The Irish defense featured senior defensive lineman Louis Nix, sophomore defensive lineman Sheldon Day and sophomore safety Elijah Shumate as starters, all of whom had been battling injuries in recent weeks.
Notre Dame’s second drive took them 33 yards, most of which came on a 23-yard pass from Irish senior quarterback Tommy Rees to freshman receiver James Onwualu. After Notre Dame failed to pick up another first down from there, Brindza attempted a 55-yard field goal, what would have been the longest field goal converted in the history of the blustery Heinz Field. Brindza’s attempt came up short and, as a result, the Panthers took over from the 38 yard line.
Pittsburgh punted the ball back to the Irish shortly thereafter when its subsequent drive stalled after eight yards. Notre Dame strung together a few signs of life offensively in its third drive. TJ Jones came out of the backfield and took a handoff from Rees to deliver the drive’s seminal moment, a 33-yard run. Then, on fourth-and-four from the 34 yard line, Rees found Irish junior tight end Ben Koyack for a 10-yard gain. Two plays later, Rees lofted a perfect pass to junior receiver DaVaris Daniels, who had made space for himself with a slick double move. The first score of the game concluded a nine-play, 83-yard drive and gave Notre Dame a 7-0 lead.
Panthers sophomore defensive back Lafayette Pitts set the home team up at midfield with a 50-yard return, but Pittsburgh had to punt it away after the team’s second three-and-out. On the next drive, Notre Dame punted as well after a three-and-out of its own. Five punts dominated the action of the opening quarter – two from Notre Dame, three from Pittsburgh – as the Irish took a one-touchdown lead into the first break.
To begin the second quarter, Pittsburgh continued to drive down the field, aided by a personal foul penalty against Irish junior defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt. On a tackle of Pittsburgh sixth-year quarterback Tom Savage at Pittsburgh’s 39-yard line, Tuitt received a flag for targeting and an ejection from the game, a ruling upheld following official review. After the penalty the Panthers marched into the red zone for the first time of the night and capped off a 10-play, 71-yard scoring drive with a three-yard touchdown pass from Savage to senior receiver Devin Street.
Notre Dame showed promise with its next drive but ended up with nothing to show for it. Irish junior running back George Atkinson began the drive with 33 yards. TJ Jones went streaking down the middle on the very next play, caught the pass from Rees but fumbled when hit by a pair of Panthers receivers near the endzone. Pitt took over at the six-yard line but failed to capitalize on the takeaway and punted after another three-and-out.
With a chance to put Jones’ mistake further in the rear-view mirror, the Irish did not drag their feet. Rees completed a 38-yard pass to Koyack, who made a difficult catch while drawing a pass-interference penalty. Originally ruled a touchdown, the play was determined to have been down at the half-yard line. After a run into the line and an incomplete pass, Notre Dame again turned to Jones on third-and-goal. The senior tri-captain found the endzone through traffic for his first career rushing touchdown and gave the Irish the 14-7 lead.
Pittsburgh responded with a 10-play drive but only managed to traverse 42 yards and had to send out the punting unit again when the drive stalled at Notre Dame’s 39 yard line. The Irish took over with 2:27 remaining in the half but could not muster a late scoring drive and quickly followed with a punt of their own.
The half ended with the Irish leading Pittsburgh, 14-7. The Irish were two of eight on third-down attempts while Pitt converted three of its nine opportunities on third down. The Panthers punted five times in the half while Notre Dame booted three over the same span.

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu