In a season best known for a pair of No. 5s, a duo of No. 2s nearly undid it. If speaking frankly, Bennett Jackson and Chris Brown should have undone it. Only a referee’s oversight allowed Notre Dame to continue its chase of a perfect season, rather than fall at the hands of a middling Pittsburgh.
Such are the breaks needed in college football.
In some respects, the 8-0 Irish should not have needed overtime to beat the Panthers, let alone three overtimes. They outgained the visitors 522 yards to 308, holding the ball for 10 more minutes and running 42 more plays. Notre Dame dominated the game, just as it had the week before in a 30-13 win at No. 8 Oklahoma.
In one respect, a fundamental error costing the Irish the game would have been fitting on a day marred by three avoidable turnovers, the first of which led Irish head coach Brian Kelly to temporarily bench sophomore quarterback Everett Golson.
“We overcame a lot tonight. We overcame some uncharacteristic mistakes,” Kelly said. “Last year that would have been a loss. But our team kept fighting, kept playing.”
That fight included Golson leading a two-touchdown comeback in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 20. A possession after Golson threw an interception in the end zone, entirely overlooking a Pittsburgh defender, his rolling, roving touchdown pass to running back Theo Riddick with just two minutes to go set up Riddick to make a key block on Golson’s option scramble for the subsequent two-point conversion and new Notre Dame life.
“Our quarterback needed to be out there mobile, make some plays outside the pocket,” Kelly said. “I asked him if he was ready to go, he said he was and we put him back in.”
Then came overtimes and field goals. Exchanging kicks in the first additional stanza led to the second’s errors. Irish running back Cierre Wood fumbled the ball as he crossed the goal line. All the Panthers needed was a field goal to win.
Wide right by just a couple feet.
“We got a little worried at the end when he missed the field goal,” receiver TJ Jones said. “You’re definitely biting fingernails and holding your breath.”
It took a bit for the moment’s mistakes to be realized by anybody. After the game, Pittsburgh was not yet aware of the folly, still simply focused on that miss.
“We missed a field goal, that’s why we lost the game,” Panthers quarterback Tino Sunseri said. “It came down to a special teams play — we didn’t make the play. Give credit to Notre Dame for being able to finish it off.”
The Irish deserved no such credit. Both cornerback Bennett Jackson and receiver Chris Brown were on the field for that fateful field goal attempt. Both were wearing the No. 2. There is no subjectivity to that situation; it should have been a penalty and a Pittsburgh first down. A field goal or a touchdown would have won the Panthers the game. The refs missed the infraction.
Thus, a third overtime.
Notre Dame’s defense held Pittsburgh to a third field goal attempt of the “fifth quarter,” and suddenly Golson had a chance to put an exclamation point on his up-and-down day.
“I think I did a good job of being with the team down the stretch,” he said afterward of an afternoon that included 227 passing yards, 74 rushing yards, three total touchdowns, two turnovers and the game ball. “Coming out today, I know we came out a little flat. As far as me personally, I missed a couple of reads that I should have had. Instead of putting three points on the board, we put six. But I felt like down the stretch we came together, and I felt like I did a great job in the end.”
That end came on a one-yard quarterback sneak, breaking the goal line and stealing the victory.
The Irish reached 9-0 on their way to an unbeaten regular season, with one No. 5 making seven tackles with two plays behind the line of the scrimmage and the other No. 5 finding the end zone four times in various ways.
Yet Manti Te’o and Golson were nearly no match for the pair of No. 2s, if the refs had noticed.
30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC
Te’o’s emotions & interceptions overwhelm No. 18 Michigan
Night games return, ‘Crazy Train’ debuts
Blowing out USC completes Irish return
Tommy Rees’ first career start, an upset exaggerated
The Irish fell, but more importantly, football returned after 9/11
Godsey heroics provide Davie hope
Last-minute Golson-to-Koyack TD beats No. 14 Stanford in the rain
A dramatic, Pyrrhic victory over LSU in 1998
Beginning with ‘ultimate greed’ in 1990 and Indiana in 1991