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Five things we learned: Notre Dame 29, Pitt 26

Nov 3, 2012, 10:36 PM EDT

Everett Golson, oe Trebitz

Make no mistake, this is a football game that Notre Dame finds a way to lose. Yet down 14 points in the fourth quarter, the No. 4 Fighting Irish kept plugging away, failing to let the litany of mistakes they made Saturday afternoon get in the way of a season that seems destined for greatness as they pulled out a stunning triple-overtime victory 29-26.

In the end, it was Notre Dame that spoiled things for the underdog. The Irish pulling out an unlikely victory. And while most Notre Dame fans felt sick to their stomach as they watched the home team commit six penalties and lose the turnover battle 3-0, Brian Kelly’s squad found a way to eke out a triple-overtime win, advancing to 9-0 for the first time since 1993.

“We made uncharacteristically some mistakes turning the football over obviously twice in the end zone,” Brian Kelly said after the game. “Last year that would have been a loss for us.  But our team kept fighting, kept playing.”

Against an undermanned Pitt team that gave the Irish their best shot, Notre Dame did just enough to escape with a win, relying on the late game heroics of Everett Golson, who ended an up-and-down battle when he plunged into the end zone on a quarterback keeper from inside the one-yard line in triple overtime. After surviving a 33-yard field goal attempt that would’ve ended the game with a Pitt victory, the Irish — and fans all across the country — can breathe a sigh of relief as Notre Dame lives to fight another day, their national championship aspirations still intact.

Let’s find out what we learned in Notre Dame’s 29-26 victory.

***

He’s still the ultimate loose cannon, but this is Everett Golson’s offense.

A look at the stat sheet doesn’t explain why Brian Kelly started the second half with Tommy Rees at the helm. But the Irish head coach sent a message loud and clear to his sophomore quarterback, and Everett Golson responded.

After nine games, Golson is no longer viewed as the young talent learning as he goes. He’s now the key cog to an Irish offense that desperately needs Golson to be its best play-maker and decision-maker. And in the first half, Golson wasn’t playing up to the elevated standards Kelly set for the quarterback. He missed open receivers for big gains, like a near-certain touchdown to a wide-open Troy Niklas. He put his head down and scrambled, choosing sandlot rules instead of proper reads. And he failed to capitalize in the red zone, leaving points on the board when the Irish offense was able to move the ball.

“I was a little upset just because of the competitor in me just wanted to be out there,” Golson said of the brief benching. “But I think it was good for me that I actually saw it this time. I think previously in the beginning of the year, I come out and they would end up telling me, but I think that just comes from a lot of film study with coaches.  You know, actually seeing my mistakes and kind of seeing it in the sidelines and seeing what they were doing kind of helped me come back and lead.”

Yet for all the frustrations Golson gives a coaching staff, the youngster proved that he was more than worth the trouble, coming alive late in the game and leading the Irish offense. Sure, he still makes the devastating decision — throwing an end zone pick when two other reads were open. But he also makes his share of magic happen, finding Davaris Daniels deep down field after the play broke down for a 45-yard reception. He capped that drive off with another improvisational wonder, hitting Theo Riddick dragging across the end zone for a touchdown, and then scored the game-tying two-point conversion for good measure, pulling the Irish even with just over two minutes to go.

Golson finished the night 23 of 42, throwing for 227 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He ran for 74 yards on 15 attempts, breaking a huge 27 yard run in the fourth quarter and plowing in for the game’s winning touchdown. And most importantly, he took another step forward, picking himself up off the mat and getting a victory for the Irish when a devastating loss seemed all but certain.

“He knows he didn’t play quite as well, but did when it counted,” Kelly said of Golson.  “He got a chance to go back in there and got the game ball tonight.  So it’s all a process of learning and developing and getting thicker skin, paying more attention to detail and practice.”

***

Notre Dame’s special teams almost cost them the game.

Another Saturday, another wretched performance by the Irish special teams. For a football team with a razor-thin margin of error, Notre Dame is doing itself no favors with its performance in the game’s all important third unit.

Obvious mistakes are probably the easiest to clean up, with Kyle Brindza missing a field goal as the first half expired and a low-snap lead to a pull-hook left that cost the Irish an all-important extra point. But just as costly is another game where the Irish are continually losing the battle for field position.

Pitt returns killed the Irish, with Lafayette Pitts putting together a nice day on kickoffs and Cameron Saddler showing a Notre Dame Stadium crowd that returning punts is possible, ripping off a 31-yarder to set the Panthers up nicely.

Irish specialists had a crummy day, with Brindza also failing to find the end zone on a single kickoff and punter Ben Turk not doing much to help either. Turk’s 41.4 average wasn’t bad, but with the game hanging in the balance and after the offense fighting back to tie the game, Turk barely got his foot on a punt with a minute left, sending a low roller that depended on a fortuitous roll to get 40 yards. No, it didn’t cost the Irish, but after four seasons on the job, you’d expect a veteran like Turk to be an asset not a liability.

It was no banner day for Irish return men either. George Atkinson looked timid as he tiptoed for yardage, getting drilled on the game’s opening kick to set the tone. And Davonte Neal fumbled a returnable punt late in the game while letting another kick roll 56 yards, once again flipping the field.

Brindza came up big in overtime, making a crucial field goal to extend the game. But with difference between winning and losing so slim, the Irish need to find some answers and stability on special teams, or get ready to lose a close football game.

***

Ray Graham was the first running back to expose some weakness in this Irish defense.

It didn’t take long for Notre Dame to realize that the Pitt offense wasn’t all that impressed with the Irish’s lofty defensive rankings or stout run defense. Ray Graham burst off the left side of the offensive line, sprinted by Heisman candidate Manti Te’o, and rumbled for 55-yards before cornerback KeiVarae Russell finally made the tackle.

That was far from all the damage that Graham did for the Panthers, with the senior runner going for 172 yards on 24 carries. He broke loose multiple times, as did the Panthers’ screen game, and Bob Diaco‘s unit had its toughest day at the office of 2012.

Yet when it came down to it, the Irish defense stiffened, holding Pitt to just 21 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime. And while Louis Nix didn’t start after spending two nights in the infirmary this week with the flu, the junior nose guard came up big along the front line, making four tackles from his nose guard spot and taking over the inside spot for Kona Schwenke.

Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore were both very active for the front line, with Tuitt notching six tackles and 1.5 sacks and Lewis-Moore adding 1.5 sacks of his own and three stops. And after a quiet first half where he made only one tackle, Te’o came up with a huge sack of his own and ended the game with seven stops. Add in another sack from Prince Shembo and two tackles for loss, and the Irish worked their way to five sacks and eight TFLs, rebounding nicely.

We tackled sub-par for us in terms of our defense,” Kelly said. “I know Coach Diaco would not be happy right now. But they found a way to shut them down in the second half, and that is the key. We shut them down in overtime. We took (Graham) and really were able to control him late in the game.”

The Irish showed the first cracks in their armor on Saturday, but came up big when it counted.

***

The Irish ran for 230 yards. And it still felt like they abandoned their running game.

Usually a 230 yard day on the ground means good things for the Irish. But Saturday felt like a lost opportunity for a Notre Dame rushing game that felt got lost in the mix and missed too many blocking assignments. No series of plays comes to mind more than the Pitt goal line stand, where the Irish had three shots at the end zone from two yard line, but each time Theo Riddick was stopped short, with the last two coming after Pitt defenders crashed through the Irish offensive front untouched.

Series like that — not to mention trailing by 14 points late in the game — help explain Kelly’s decision to go away from a ground attack that was still doing a nice job gaining yards. At one point in the second half, the Irish ran 19 straight plays without getting one of their talented running backs involved in the game. It helps explain Golson’s Denard Robinson-like existence, where Golson accounted for almost 75 percent of the team’s total offense in the fourth quarter and overtimes, throwing for 105 yards and running for 59, 164 of the Irish’s 223 yards.

Kelly explained the decision to lean heavily on Golson and go away from the run, crediting Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who made seven tackles for a Pitt defense that depended on a ton of man coverage.

“They were playing a lot of cover one, moving the front,” Kelly said. “As you know we were having some problems inside blocking No. 97 in particular. We just felt if we could spread him out, that would give us an opportunity to move the football down the field.”

Spreading the Panthers out meant more Riddick in pass-heavy formations for the Irish running game, relegating Cierre Wood to an after-thought for much of the second half, even though Wood once again was having a good game on limited touches. Even with a 60-yard run called back, Wood ran for 5.4 yards a carry, while Riddick once again failed to average four yards a carry.

But Kelly showed why he puts his trust in Riddick as his primary ball carrier, even if he’s a far less dynamic option. With Wood getting his number called in double-overtime, the senior back extended the ball while leaping for the goal line, and fumbled just inches short of scoring, turning himself from hero to potential goat, if Pitt kicker Kevin Harper didn’t bail him out.

Does Wood try to do too much because he’s getting less touches? Was it simply a very good play by a defender and a very risky play by a runner who knows better? Probably somewhere in the middle. But the Irish run game felt like it didn’t do as much as it could on Saturday. And that they still manage to gain 230 yards on the ground means Harry Hiestand‘s troops are being held to a higher standard.

***

You could call it the luck of the Irish. But give Notre Dame credit for pulling out a football game that seemed all but lost.

Things weren’t pretty for the Irish late in the third quarter. With freshman tight end J.P. Holtz rumbling loose through the Irish secondary, it looked like Pitt was going to put the game out of reach when Graham gave the Panthers first and goal at the Notre Dame two-yard line. But the Irish held Pitt out of the end zone, limiting them to a chip-shot field goal and a 20-6 lead. From there on, the Irish scored 14 points, sending things to overtime and eventually winning in dramatic fashion.

“Good teams do what Notre Dame did,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said after the game. “And that is win the close ones.”

The Irish won’t likely be rewarded by the pollsters for their win, but the dream undefeated season is alive. And it’s still possible thanks to some gutty efforts by some unheralded guys. Like safety Matthias Farley, who played with a cast on his hand just days after surgery in a move even Ronnie Lott would applaud.

“Matthias was operated on Tuesday, he was out cold on an operating table on Tuesday,” Kelly said of his safety now entrenched in the starting lineup after Jamoris Slaughter’s season-ending Achilles tendon injury. “They put two plates and six screws in his hand, put a cast on him, he came back and practiced Wednesday and Thursday you know, did the best he could.”

Kelly also had strong words of praise for Louis Nix, defending his player when an interviewer sounded like he questioned the validity of Nix’s illness.

“The kid was sick all week, and he busted his butt to try to help our football team today,” Kelly said. “So, you know, Louis Nix has got a lot in the bank of trust with me.  He was in the infirmary two nights, and he came out and helped our football team.”

And while Kelly wanted to steer the conversation away from any comparisons to the 2011 team that found ways to lose games like this, it was clear that the mental toughness that’s been preached about daily since December came through and helped this team rally for a season-saving victory.

“I’m proud of how passionate both our offense and defense are,” Golson said after the game. “The defense with their backs up against the wall, and Cierre fumbled, and just to have all the adversity. We had guys on the sidelines just saying, ‘Stay up.  Keep doing what you’re doing. We’re going to be good,’ and stuff like that.  I’m just proud of the character that we have.”

Character won’t help your BCS rankings or gain you points with pollsters looking for ways to differentiate undefeated teams. But it helps you win games, keeping the Irish in the conversation when it seemed they had done everything they could to play their way out of the national title hunt.

But on a Saturday that seemed all too eerily familiar to big game debacles of seasons’ past, Brian Kelly’s squad rallied to win on Saturday. That certainly counts for something.

In this case, a 9-0 record.

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