NOTRE DAME, Ind. – It looked like history might be repeating on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium when the Fighting Irish hosted Pittsburgh. For the third time in the last two decades the Irish were off to an 8-0 start and it looked like they might follow the program’s tortuous pattern of falling to an unranked team after a big win.
In the end, Notre Dame staged a furious fourth quarter comeback with a quarterback that found himself on the bench for a stretch in the middle of the game in an improbable 29-26 triple overtime victory over the Panthers.
Notre Dame overcame a 14-point fourth quarter deficit and Everett Golson would eventually score the game-winning touchdown to improve the Irish to 9-0 for the first time since 1993. The Irish started that season 10-0 only to lose to Boston College the next weekend. They started 8-0 in 2002, but lost to BC in their ninth game of that year.
The Irish looked sharp offensively on the game’s first possession. Golson completed his first four pass attempts as he marched the team downfield. They would settle for a 37-yard Kyle Brindza field goal after stalling at the 20 yard line. The team used 6:32 on the clock during the 14-play, 60-yard drive to take a 3-0 lead.
It looked like Pitt was going to take the lead on the Irish with just one play, but KeiVarae Russell saved a touchdown for the defense. Russell ran down Panther running back Ray Graham from behind after the senior bolted up the middle on Pitt’s first play from scrimmage at its own 13. Russell caught him at the ND 32 after a 55-yard gain – the longest play by an Irish opponent this season.
Pittsburgh had to settle for a 39-yard field goal after Kapron Lewis-Moore sacked Tino Sunseri for a nine-yard loss on third and five from the 13. Pitt’s drive covered 65 yards in seven plays to tie the score 3-3 with 5:00 to play in the first quarter.
Notre Dame used a massive amount of game clock only to settle for a second field goal on its second possession of the game. The Irish chewed 9:26 off the clock during the 18-play, 89-yard drive that advanced all the way to the half-yard line. Theo Riddick was initially ruled to have scored a touchdown on the 15th play of the drive, but replay overturned the ruling on the field.
Riddick was stuffed for a four-yard loss on third down to set-up Brindza’s 20-yard field goal to make it 6-3 Irish. The sum total of Notre Dame’s first two drives was 15:58 on the clock, 32 plays, 149 yards, and six points. They gained just three yards while going three-and-out on their third possession.
The Panthers capitalized after a 38-yard punt by Ben Turk, going 58 yards in just six plays – capped by a 16-yard touchdown run by tailback Ray Graham. It marked just the second rushing touchdown surrendered by the ND defense this season and the second in as many weeks. Graham’s eighth rushing touchdown of the year gave Pitt a 10-6 advantage with 3:55 to play before halftime.
Tommy Rees made his first appearance in two weeks on Notre Dame’s next possession after Everett Golson’s helmet came off during a play. By rule a player is required to leave the field for one play after his helmet comes off. Rees fired an incomplete pass on third and six and the Irish punted on the next play.
The ND defense gave the offense a chance to end the half on a positive note, but it didn’t materialize. Pitt head coach Paul Chryst decided to go for it on fourth and one at midfield, but Graham was stuffed for no gain with 34 seconds left to play before the half.
Rees came back on the field and completed three of four passes to give Brindza a shot at a 43-yard field goal, but the kick missed wide right as the first half clock hit zero. The 10-6 deficit marked the third straight home game Notre Dame has trailed at home this season.
Golson was 9-for-15 for 88 yards passing with three rushes for eight net yards. Riddick paced the Irish with 52 rushing yards on 13 carries, while Tyler Eifert had three catches for 32 yards.
Sunseri was 10-for-12 for 84 yards for the Panthers. Graham ran for 77 yards on seven carries and Devin Street had three receptions for 35 yards.
Notre Dame dominated every first half statistic with the exception of the most important one – the score board. They ran 43 plays for 208 yards to 22 for 160 yards by Pitt and held the ball for a total of 19:26 minutes to Pittsburgh’s 10:34, yet the Panthers led 10-6.
Pittsburgh got the ball to begin the second half and the Irish defense rose to the occasion. Pitt managed one first down after starting with the ball at its own 25, but thanks to a bobbled snap and a Prince Shembo sack on third down the Irish forced a Pittsburgh punt.
With Golson on the sideline with his helmet on, Rees started the second half at quarterback for the Fighting Irish. He drove the offense to midfield after starting at the 10 on his first drive. Pitt went three-and-out after an ND punt, giving the Irish the ball at their own 45, but Rees was intercepted by linebacker Eric Williams to give the Panthers the ball at their own 48.
Sunseri threw an incompletion on his next attempt, but then connected with J.P. Holtz for a 43-yard pass to the Irish eight. He hit Holtz in the end zone one play later to give Pitt a Stadium-silencing 17-6 lead with 5:52 remaining in the third quarter.
Golson returned to the field on Notre Dame’s next possession, but he was far from successful. He completed two quick passes to Eifert and Jones, but was sacked, ran for a yard and fired incomplete in successive plays to force another punt. A 31-yard return by the Panthers gave them the ball at their own 39 with 3:23 remaining in the quarter.
Graham nearly stuck a dagger in Notre Dame’s heart on Pittsburgh’s first play of the ensuing possession when he started up the middle and then bounced outside for a 48-yard gain. Zeke Motta ran him down to save a touchdown and the Panthers had to settle for a 21-yard Kevin Harper field goal. While ND kept Pitt out of the end zone they still trailed 20-6 with less than a minute left in the third.
Pittsburgh’s 10-0 third quarter scoring advantage completely flipped the script for how both teams have performed in the period this season. Pitt had been outscored 59-37, while Notre Dame had outscored opponents 47-7 in the first period of the second half this season. The 14-point deficit at the end of the third period is the largest deficit the Fighting Irish have faced all year.
The offense finally came back to life as the fourth quarter began. Golson led the Irish on a 71-yard drive to the end zone, culminating in an 11-yard touchdown on a screen pass to Jones for his third TD catch of the season and Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the day. Brindza missed the extra point after a low snap though and the Irish trailed 20-12 with 13:40 remaining in regulation.
A Pitt punt followed after the Panthers ran five plays on their next possession. Matt Yolic pinned the Irish at their own two with 9:57 remaining, but Golson quickly dug ND out of a field position hole by scrambling for 27 yards on his team’s second play. The Irish found themselves at the Pitt seven 12 plays later before Golson was intercepted in the end zone by K’Wuan Williams with 3:59 on the clock.
The defense came-up big by forcing a three-and-out and a punt and the Irish got the ball back with 3:03 to play and the ball on the 50.
Golson connected with DaVaris Daniels for a 45-yard gain on the first play to give the Irish the ball at the five. Golson had seemingly unlimited time to survey the defense before Daniels shook a pair of defenders to make the catch. Golson hit Theo Riddick on a roll out to the right for a five-yard TD on the next play to bring the Irish to within two points.
Pandemonium shook the stadium on the next play as Golson ran to his right and dove across the goal line for the two-point conversion and a 20-20 score with 2:11 remaining.
An incompletion, a sack by Stephon Tuitt and Manti Te’o and a modest run by Graham on successive plays forced Pitt to punt again. The Irish used their second and third timeouts after the second and third down plays and got the ball back at their own 33 after the Panther punt.
Golson stumbled coming away from center on the first play of the drive. Cierre Wood gained 11 on the next play to make it third and seven at the Irish 36, prompting the Panthers to use their first timeout of the half. Golson fired incomplete for Eifert on the next play, forcing a punt. Pitt took over at its own 24 with 58 seconds on the regulation clock.
Pitt’s efforts on its last three plays of the fourth quarter were in vain and the teams headed to overtime tied 20-20.
Notre Dame won the overtime coin toss and elected to go on defense first. Pitt chose to play at the south end of the field – opposite the Fighting Irish student section and band.
Sunseri fumbled the first snap of overtime and Pitt would settle for a 41-yard field goal to take a 23-20 lead. Brindza answered with a 37-yarder to tie the score and second the game to a second extra session. The teams swapped ends of the field and Notre Dame was on offense as the second overtime period began.
After an incompletion on Notre Dame’s first play, the Irish ran the ball six straight times and looked like they had scored the go ahead touchdown on a leaping effort by Wood from the two-yard line, but Wood fumbled the ball in mid air while diving across the goal line.
Graham ran the ball three times for the Panthers to give Pitt fourth and one, setting-up a 33-yard field goal try by Harper for the win. The snap was high and the kick was wide right and the teams went to a third overtime. College overtime rules stipulate that teams must attempt a two-point conversion from the third overtime period on.
Harper nailed a 44-yard field goal back at the south end of the field to put the Panthers back on top 26-23 to begin overtime number three. The key play was a sack by Tuitt and Louis Nix for a loss of six on second down.
Golson followed center Braxton Cave across the goal line six plays later for a one-yard touchdown and a 29-26 triple overtime Irish victory.
The 14-point fourth quarter deficit is the largest Notre Dame has overcome in a win since rallying from 19 down at Michigan State in 2006 for a 40-37 win over the Spartans.