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Week 10: Pittsburgh

Joseph Monardo | Sunday, November 10, 2013

 

PITTSBURGH – Seeking its fifth-straight win and with a chance to claim the top spot in all-time winning percentage, Notre Dame came up short against underdog Pittsburgh. But even more damaging was the blow Notre Dame’s BCS hopes took. Hurt by a pair of interceptions, the Irish gave up three second-half touchdowns in a 28-21 loss to the Panthers on Saturday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Notre Dame (7-3) was driving and threatening to tie the game in the final minutes, but a 4th-and-10 pass attempt to Irish junior receiver DaVaris Daniels fell incomplete and Pittsburgh (5-4, 2-3 ACC) ran out the clock to crush Notre Dame’s already-fleeting BCS-bowl hopes.

“Disappointing, especially disappointing in the way that we played and coached,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Hats off to Pittsburgh, they deserved to win.

“The execution on offense was awful. Defensively we kept drives alive – pass-interference penalties, personal fouls. We weren’t alert enough to get on the ball for the fumble. … It’s on everybody. You can’t single out one thing. To a large degree though, the execution was very poor.”

The first half brought eight combined punts and the opening drives of the third quarter were no different. With Pittsburgh receiving the ball to start, both teams punted on their respective opening drives before the Panthers put together a long drive on their second possession of the stanza. The 13-play, 69-yard drive concluded with a two-yard touchdown run by Panthers freshman running back James Conner and evened the score at 14.

Notre Dame answered immediately, with an 80-yard touchdown pass from Irish senior quarterback Rees to senior receiver TJ Jones on the first play following Pitt’s score. The Irish did not hold the 21-14 advantage for long, though, as Pittsburgh responded with a three-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that took only 1:17 off the clock. Panthers redshirt senior quarterback Tom Savage found redshirt senior receiver Devin Street for a 63-yard touchdown strike to pull the Panthers even once again. Irish junior safety Matthias Farley hit Street when he caught the football but could not bring him down, as the wideout broke free and ran another 35 yards for the score.

Trying to retake the lead, Notre Dame put together an eight-play drive that moved the ball 50 yards to the Pitt 4-yard line. Rolling to his right on second down, Rees lofted a throw back to his left that was intended for Irish sophomore receiver Chris Brown. But Panthers redshirt junior defensive back Ray Vinopal came down with the interception in the end zone.

On third down of Pittsburgh’s ensuing drive, Irish senior linebacker Prince Shembo brought down Savage, who fumbled the ball. Believing the play to be dead after an incomplete pass, no player scooped up the free ball and the Panthers eventually fell on it. Pittsburgh punted the next play, but the Irish did not take long to give it right back. Looking for junior tight end Troy Niklas over the middle, Rees overthrew his target and Vinopal came down with his second interception of the night before running deep into the red zone. Vinopal also forced a first-quarter fumble from Jones.

“We can’t turn the ball over like that,” Rees said. “I take accountability for that. When you put your defense in compromising situations like that, it’s hard for the defense to make stops. It starts with me and it starts with the senior leaders. We have to come back better. There’s definitely the little things that we didn’t do that you need to win games.”

Vinopal’s 40-yard return placed the ball on the 5-yard line and, two plays later, Conner rumbled in from the 1-yard line to put Pittsburgh up 28-21 with 9:36 left to play.

The opening drives of the game fit the theme of recent years, if not in terms of outstanding play at least in terms of back-and-forth action. Notre Dame elected to receive to start the game but had to punt the ball away after a three-and-out. After a 49-yard punt by Irish junior Kyle Brindza, Pittsburgh 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.

The teams traded punts once more before the Irish strung together the game’s longest drive to that point. 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 4th-and-4 from the 34-yard line, Rees found junior tight end Ben Koyack for a 10-yard gain. Two plays later, Rees lofted a perfect pass to Daniels, who had made space for himself with a slick double move. The first score of the game concluded the nine-play, 83-yard drive and gave Notre Dame a 7-0 lead.

Early in the second quarter, Notre Dame’s defense suffered a critical loss when junior defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt drew a flag for targeting while tackling Savage early in the second quarter. Following a video review, the officials upheld Tuitt’s ejection from the game.

“I tried to get momentum from it, get guys going, but losing Tuitt to the defense is a big difference,” Irish senior cornerback and tri-captain Bennett Jackson said. “It’s a big hole to fill. And we just tried to come together as a defense and continue to pull it out.”

After the penalty Pittsburgh 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 Street.

With the Irish trying to answer, TJ Jones fumbled the ball at the end of a long catch-and-run from Rees. Pittsburgh gained possession at its own six but could not pick up a first down and quickly punted it back to Notre Dame. 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 on the drive’s opening play to put the ball at the half-yard line and Jones ran it in two plays later to give the visiting team a one-touchdown lead it would maintain heading into the break.

In the losing effort, Jones finished with 149 yards receiving and 41 yards. He also scored a rushing touchdown and caught a touchdown pass, giving him a receiving score in each of Notre Dame’s last seven contests. The stellar individual performance was not enough, however.

“It was frustrating,” he said. “Everyone was mad. No one is happy. You know that you made mistakes that cost you the game.

“We made mistakes. They didn’t. We didn’t execute. They did. Point blank, period.”

The Irish enter the bye week following the loss and will return to action in the senior day game against BYU on Nov. 23 in Notre Dame Stadium. What began as a season filled with high expectations has devolved into something much bleaker, as the loss dropped the Irish out of the top 25. Notre Dame still has plenty to play for, though, Jackson said.

“You know, we play for ourselves, and you always play for yourselves, you play for the university,” he said. “We are just going to go out and win every game that’s in front of us. Every opportunity we have we are going to go out there and compete, and that’s what we do every week. So if the BCS isn’t there, we just go out there and compete. We are brothers, we are teammates, and we play for the university.

“You don’t want to lose any games. So we are going to go into the bye week, work our tails off and try to win the ball game.”

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu