Avoiding a catastrophic letdown might be the best takeaway from the Notre Dame Fighting Irish’s narrow 19-14 victory over the Pitt Panthers on Saturday. The teeth-rattling win wasn’t assured until the final moments, with Notre Dame not even taking their first lead until there was just under six minutes left in the contest.
Coming off two emotional wins and entering the game as three-touchdown favorites, the fears of looking past the Panthers began to take shape early in the second half. That was when Notre Dame trailed 14-6 and just after Ian Book had thrown his second interception of the game.
However, with the alarm sounded, the Irish kept their cool and tallied a couple of scores to stay in the national title hunt.
Under Early Attack
One of the ways that Pittsburgh was able to limit the Irish to just two first half field goals was an aggressive pass rush that relied on plenty of corner blitzing. By the half, Book had been sacked three times for 33 yards and found himself running from pursuit on a number of other occasions.
On the Irish’s first series of the game, two quick first downs gave them the ball near midfield. The first of those sacks then followed, with Notre Dame soon forced to punt. After picking up their first three-pointer with 4:34 left, their next series had them with a first down on the Pitt 11. That stalled out when two sacks forced another field goal.
Doing His Part
Book raised his record starting behind center for Notre Dame this season to 4-0. Despite his two picks, the quarterback was accurate on the day by completing 26-of-32 for 264 yards and two scores. On the first Irish touchdown drive, he went 6-for-6 for 77 yards, but missed the opportunity to tie the game by overthrowing Miles Boykin on the conversion attempt. On the game-winning surge, Book and Boykin hooked up twice, the last on a 35-yard connection with 5:43 to go.
Defense to the Rescue
Given the offensive problems on the day, the Notre Dame defense needed to step up and deliver. They largely did that after allowing the first score of the game, which closed a 17-play, 88-yard drive in the opening quarter. The only other score came on a special teams breakdown to begin the third quarter.
Pitt was held to just 242 total yards on the afternoon, with the Irish defenders helping to shut the door for good in clinching the victory. A Khalid Kareem sack, followed by Julian Okwara’s partial tip of a pass led to a third down rush of Panther signal caller Kenny Pickett that resulted in a penalty which made it 4th-and-29. That last ditch effort led to a pass catch out of bounds to cement away the win.
Running in Quicksand
After six victories in which the running game was often a central component in winning, the Irish managed just 79 yards on the ground for the entire contest. Dexter Williams and Book each gained just 31 yards on a total of 29 carries, with 22 of the quarterback’s total coming on a single play. One indication of just how steep that drop in the collective output was is the fact that Williams last week managed to race 97 yards on a single play.
Tony Jones Jr. gained just 10 yards on four carries, with Jafar Armstrong still out with an injury. For the contest, Notre Dame managed to tote the ball for just 2.1 yards per carry, which they were able to get away with against a team that entered the game with a 3-3 record. Once everyone’s healthy again, the hope is that this production was simply an aberration.
That 99-yard kickoff return to start off the second half no doubt sent the Irish faithful to look for some antacids, with visions of an upset loss hovering overhead. Yet instead of the Notre Dame special teams playing an integral role in what would have been a crushing loss, it was the Pittsburgh special teams that faltered.
Panther kicker Alex Kessman had the opportunity to extend his team’s advantage, but missed a 47-yard attempt. On Pitt’s next drive, he missed a 36-yarder, two scores that might have delivered the upset. The strength of Kessman’s leg shouldn’t be in question, considering he hit a pair of three-pointers last week of more than 50 yards.
Following next week’s bye, another rivalry clash is on tap in two weeks against the Midshipmen of Navy, though in a first-time locale for this storied battle. San Diego is the site, which effectively renders this a home game for the Midshipmen, given that city’s heavy naval presence.
Having seen their national championship hopes hang in the balance, it’s likely that the Irish will be completely re-focused in this meeting. Given Georgia’s loss, it appears that Notre Dame might even move up in the polls from their fifth spot following this escape, offering a bit of irony to the situation.