All the ingredients for another season-derailing upset were there. Missed field goals and missed touchdowns. Costly turnovers, uncharacteristic penalties and the ghosts of Notre Dame past. But for one night in South Bend, history failed to repeat itself.
Sophomore Everett Golson dives across the goal line on a two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter.
Irish quarterback Everett Golson scored from a yard away on the game’s final play, four hours and seven minute after the opening kick, to salvage a 29-26 overtime win over Pittsburgh.
Notre Dame had been here before. A decade ago an 8-0 Irish team ranked third in the country and coming off its biggest win of the year laid an egg at home against Boston College in a game riddled with mistakes. The same script looked to be playing out Saturday against the Panthers. In the final minutes of the fourth quarter and the three extra periods that followed, Golson and his teammates rewrote the story so often told on Notre Dame’s campus in recent history. They pushed their record to 9-0 in the process and kept their hopes for a national championship bid alive.
“It was not our best effort,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “Now having said that, we played a team that played extremely well today and we found a way to win. That’s a good thing.”
A 45-yard broken play completion to sophomore DaVaris Daniels started the comeback with less than three minutes remaining in regulation. On the next play, Golson rolled to his right and found senior Theo Riddick wide open in the back of the end zone to pull the Irish within two points. The rookie quarterback exhausted his throwing options on the ensuing conversion, so he found a crease in the line of scrimmage and leaped across the goal line to tie the score 20-20 and force overtime.
Golson finished the game with 227 passing yards and two touchdown passes. He also ran the ball 15 times for 88 yards, one shy of Riddick’s team-high 89 yards.
The Irish defense, uncharacteristically porous in the first three quarters, tightened down the stretch. They allowed only 21 yards on Pittsburgh’s 23 final plays. The Panthers never got closer than the 16-yard line in overtime. Even that possession ended in disappointment when senior Kevin Harper missed a 33-yard field goal attempt that would have sealed a win for the underdog in the double overtime.
Notre Dame running back Cierre Wood lost control of the football while diving in the end zone to end Notre Dame’s half of the second extra period. Notre Dame survived when Harper left his kick to the right. Pitt went backward on its next possession, and Golson and Riddick combined to finish the game from there.
“We had an opportunity there, a golden opportunity. We didn’t get it done,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said.
Wood’s fumble was the third turnover of the game for Notre Dame. All three nearly cost the Irish dearly. Golson threw an interception in the end zone with under four minutes to go in regulation that temporarily killed their comeback bid. The pick, nabbed by junior cornerback K’Waun Williams, sent an 88-yard drive crashing to a halt.
“It was a horrible throw, horrible read,” Golson said.
Kelly said Golson made a slew of poor reads that landed him on the bench to the start the second half. Irish junior Tommy Rees entered the game in relief after Golson lost his helmet and his place in the huddle on a sack late in the second quarter. He completed six of his 11 pass attempts, but his last throw of the night was intercepted by Pitt linebacker Eric Williams.
Williams returned his interception to the short side of the 50-yard line and set up the Panthers’ second touchdown of the game. Freshman tight end J.P. Holtz rumbled 43 yards down the middle of the field on a screen pass the very next play. Holtz finished the drive with his second career touchdown catch, hauling in a nine-yard toss from Tino Sunseri at the goal line to give Pitt a 17-6 lead.
Pittsburgh, specifically senior running back Ray Graham, found a way to poke more holes in the Irish defense than any other team so far this season. Graham carried the ball 24 times for 172 yards against a defense that had allowed only one other triple digit rusher (Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor) in its first eight games.
He barreled over Irish safety Matthias Farley on his way to the game’s first touchdown in the second quarter. Graham’s 16-yard score was the last of a string of four straight plays that went for at least 10 yards. Graham also started the game with a 55-yard burst through the middle of the field on Pitt’s first play from scrimmage.
Notre Dame began the game by driving to red zone twice, but settled for field goals both times. A false start penalty stalled an efficient opening march and brought on sophomore Kyle Brindza for a 37-yard field goal.
Riddick lunged across the goal line on the next Irish possession, but video replay showed he was down short of the end zone. Riddick went backwards on his next two attempts, and Notre Dame kicked another field goal despite snapping the ball eight times from inside the 10-yard line.
“I think us not being able to not put the ball in the end zone was a big problem,” Riddick said. “It would have been a completely different game if we had 14 [points] there. …That’s something that we have to improve on quickly.”
Brindza missed a third field goal attempt from 43 yards out as time expired in the second quarter to send the Irish to their locker room trailing 10-6. He also missed a crucial extra point after Golson’s first touchdown pass to TJ Jones in the fourth quarter. As he has done several times this year, Brindza bounced back to connect from 37 yards out to tie the game in the first overtime.
Notre Dame was far from perfect in all three stages of the game Saturday, but Pittsburgh gave them opportunities to crawl back into the game and, like Brindza, the Irish took advantage.
Pitt drops to 4-5 with the loss. Notre Dame survives and moves to 9-0. The Irish survived another week in what is shaping up to be a four-team race to the finish line for a chance to play for a national championship in January. Oregon and Kansas State each one shootouts to stay undefeated as well.
A pair of Atlantic Coast Conference teams — Boston College and Wake Forest — remain on the slate before a season finale showdown with a vulnerable USC team in Los Angeles. Even if the Irish win out, they will likely need some help from the other unbeaten to get a ticket to Miami. But that won’t keep Kelly up at night, he has enough to keep him busy in South Bend.
“We can’t worry about all those other things. We really can’t,” he said. “I could be politically correct and say I care, we’re going to watch it. But to be honest, we’ve got a lot of work to do with our football team.”