Created on Saturday, 03 November 2012 21:38 Written by Jasper Wilson / Assistant Sports Editor
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Ray Graham burst through a blob of golden helmets and suddenly had nothing but grass and a set of uprights opposing him.
Eighty-seven yards never seemed so long a distance.
During its first offensive play of the game Saturday afternoon, Pitt looked as if it were on its way to surprising the more than 80,000 people in attendance at Notre Dame Stadium by taking an early lead against the No. 3 team in the nation.
Graham, a year removed from an ACL tear, crossed the midfield ahead of everyone, but somehow, Irish defenders made up the seemingly insurmountable gap between themselves and the ball carrier, wrestling the senior running back to the ground on the 32-yard line. And in doing so, the Irish contained the damage to 55 yards.
Pitt managed no better than a 39-yard field goal on that drive, tying the game when it could’ve taken the lead.
That play foreshadowed what would unfold in the next four hours as Pitt surprisingly stayed with one of the nation’s best teams, only to lose right at the end.
“I think that’s one thing that we do: play to our opponent’s level,” Graham said after the game. “We gotta just play our game every time we step on the field.”
The Panthers (4-5, 1-3 Big East) blew a 14-point lead going into the fourth quarter against undefeated Notre Dame (9-0), losing 29-26 in triple overtime during one of the most memorable Pitt football games in recent history. Pitt was close to a historic win against the Irish, who have been included in the discussion regarding teams vying for the national title.
Pitt’s defense allowed 145 yards on two long drives in the opening period of play, embodying the expression “bending but not breaking” and holding Irish offense — the same offense that hung 30 points in a win on then-No. 8 Oklahoma a week ago — to six points in the first half.
In the first quarter, Notre Dame amassed its most yards in a quarter this season with 145 as well as its highest number of first downs with nine but scored just a single field goal.
The second scoring drive for the Irish came to an abrupt halt when the Panthers made a goal-line stand that culminated in a 4-yard loss before a successful 20-yard field goal kick by Kyle Brindza.
But largely thanks to a huge game from Graham, who finished with 174 yards and a touchdown, the Panthers took a 10-6 lead into the break.
Pitt redshirt senior quarterback Tino Sunseri, who was 19-for-29 for 164 yards, recorded his only touchdown in the third quarter when he connected with freshman tight end J.P. Holtz to give Pitt a 17-6 advantage. The pair had linked up on the previous play for a 45-yard haul right down the middle of the field.
After this score, the sell-out crowd — vociferous until this point — was quiet.
Following a field goal by Pitt kicker Kevin Harper, Notre Dame cut into the lead at the beginning of the final quarter with an 11-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Everett Golson to T.J. Jones, but a shanked extra-point kick meant the difference remained at eight.
The ball switched hands twice more until Pitt found itself with an opportunity to finish the game.
Needing to use up time, the Panthers went against common philosophy of running, instead calling passing plays on their first two downs. The first attempt, an incompletion, stopped the clock. The second attempt imploded when Sunseri dropped the snap, recovered it but was then tackled for a loss of four yards.
Facing a long-yardage situation on third-and-14, Sunseri dropped back, saw nothing in front of him and then was suddenly under pressure. Falling down for what looked to be his sixth sack, Sunseri flipped the ball to Graham, who didn’t do much better, getting tackled for a 1-yard loss. So Pitt punted away without having reached the first-down marker.
“I thought we were going to run the ball,” Graham said of that set of downs. “We have a great offensive coordinator, he made the play call, and we stuck with it.”
That offensive drive took less than a minute to complete, and the punt travelled just 35 yards.
On an inversely parallel path, Notre Dame needed two plays to reach the end zone as Golson connected with wide receiver DaVaris Daniels for a 45-yard pass to the Pitt 5-yard line.
And so, with about two minutes remaining in the game, Notre Dame running back Theo Riddick snuck behind the Pitt defense and ran toward the sideline undetected.
Golson, maneuvering in the same direction to escape pressure, found the running back on the edge of the boundary as he ran into a sea of band members. Going for a two-point conversion on the next play, Golson scrambled right and acrobatically darted over the goal line to tie the game.
“You get opportunities, and we let them slip [away],” Sunseri said. “Whenever you have a top-five team like that on the ropes and you have a chance to end the game and you don’t take advantage of it, you have to be able to end the game and not give them any more chances.”
With a minute and a half left in the game, Notre Dame began at its own 33-yard line. Pitt held strong, containing the Irish to one set of downs.
Regulation time would end with a level score of 20.
Pitt had the first possession in overtime, beginning at the 25-yard line.
But the offense suffered a terrible three-play sequence: Sunseri fumbled a snap but recovered for a 1-yard loss, a 5-yard delay of game penalty on the defense, a 5-yard false-start penalty on the offense and a third-down drop.
Fortunately for the Panthers, Harper made the resulting 41-yard field goal.
Notre Dame needed to match that to keep the game alive or score a touchdown to win.
An incomplete pass followed by a 1-yard rush and 4-yard rush meant field goal time. Brindza obliged by nailing a 37-yarder through the posts to take the game to double overtime.
The order switched, and Notre Dame began anew.
Its offense moved the ball with ease on the ground, traveling all the way to the 2-yard line. And in one play, that efficiency became nothing, as Cierre Wood fumbled and Pitt safety Jarred Holley recovered in the end zone to give Pitt the ball and a chance to win the game.
The Panthers attempted to pound their way to a touchdown through Graham, giving him the ball on three straight plays. He came up two yards short, setting up a 33-yard field goal attempt for Harper that would allow for a shocking Pitt victory.
“Whenever we got the ball, I thought that we were gonna be able to go down and be able to ice the game,” Sunseri said.
But that wasn’t the case.
The snap was high, and Harper pushed the kick wide right, indicating yet another overtime period to come.
The order reversed again, so Pitt stayed on offense. And again, the team couldn’t generate anything to get near the end zone. Harper converted a 44-yard kick to put his team up by three.
Then Notre Dame did what Pitt failed to do in the fourth quarter or during any of the three overtimes: reach the end zone. Golson dove into the pile from a yard out to win the game.
Redshirt senior linebacker Joe Trebitz — Pitt’s leading tackler on the day with 13 total in the first start of his career — reflected on his thought process over the course of the game.
“A couple times I thought we had it sealed, but that’s why you play to the last whistle. You never know what’s gonna happen,” Trebitz said.
After Pitt head coach Paul Chryst said a few weeks ago that a point would arise when the team would need senior kicker Kevin Harper, and he would deliver, Saturday seemed as though it might be that day. Harper made both of his extra-point kicks and four of five attempted field goals from 21, 39, 41 and 44 yards.
That solitary miss — which if made, would’ve won the game — was one of the many missed chances head coach Paul Chryst rued afterward.
“We had a golden opportunity, and we missed it,” Chryst said.