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Senior Day disaster

Kate Gales | Monday, November 15, 2004

Despite finding a way to be consistent on offense, Notre Dame found a way to be inconsistent overall yet again.

Pittsburgh’s Tyler Palko threw for 334 yards and a Notre Dame-opponent record five touchdowns, and Josh Cummings kicked a 32-yard field goal with one second on the clock to beat the Irish 41-38.

“For this team, it comes the hard way,” Irish coach Tyrone Willingham said. “As bitter, as painful as this day is, they’ll continue to work.”

A week after upsetting then-No. 9 Tennessee, the Irish found themselves searching for answers after their third home loss this season – this one on Senior Day.

“Honestly, I never imagined losing this game – having four losses the rest of the season,” Irish quarterback Brady Quinn said. “I’m in a state of shock right now.”

Quinn completed 15-of-26 passes for 259 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Matt Shelton led receivers with three grabs for 128 yards and one touchdown, including a game-high 46-yard catch.

The Irish generated 438 yards of total offense, including 112 yards on the ground from Darius Walker, but they were unable to stop the Panthers (6-3), who became bowl-eligible with the win.

Quinn was intercepted on the opening drive by Josh Lay, who returned the ball four yards to the Irish 33. Palko dropped a bad snap on second-and-one and Mike Goolsby recovered the fumble to begin a drive that would lead to the first Irish touchdown – 5-yard Walker run.

Both of Walker’s touchdown runs came in the first half, as well as a 40-yard run – the team’s longest of the season. Maurice Stovall would finish the drive by catching a 17-yard pass for his first touchdown of the year.

“We kind of played our heart out … [but] there’s always stuff that I can do better,” Walker said. “I definitely coulda, woulda, shoulda on a lot of the plays and runs and things.”

The Notre Dame offense produced, but a porous secondary could not stop the Panthers in the first half. Pittsburgh marched downfield on four consecutive drives and was not forced to punt until the second half.

The Notre Dame defense tightened up in the second half, but penalties made a big difference. In the Panthers’ final touchdown drive, two pass interference calls proved costly – including one that negated a Tom Zbikowski goal-line interception.

“I don’t think there was absence of pressure,” Willingham said, noting that the elusive Palko was forced to scramble 13 times for a net gain of 30 yards. The Irish recorded three sacks on the day for a net loss of 20 yards.

But Palko stepped up and made the big plays when they were necessary, including a fourth-and-four conversion on a flip pass late in the fourth quarter that led to the Panthers’ go-ahead touchdown.

After the usually reliable Irish tight end Anthony Fasano dropped a ball on third-and-five, D.J. Fitzpatrick kicked a 44-yard field goal off the left upright with 1:11 remaining to tie the score at 38 apiece.

The Panthers strung together six plays for 55 yards to get within field goal range for the winning score. On that drive, Irish linebacker Mike Goolsby went for the strip instead of trying to tackle Pittsburgh receiver Erik Gill, who broke two tackles for a 36-yard gain. The Panthers ended the drive on the game-winning field goal by Cummings, which gave the Panthers the 41-38 win.

“This game was about missed opportunities,” said linebacker Derek Curry. “We had opportunities to make plays but we didn’t step up and make them.”

The seniors, who had a particularly bitter defeat in their final home game, were left searching for answers.

“It’s been kind of an up-and-down season,” said Carlyle Holiday. “We beat some great teams and we lost to some teams we thought we could beat.”