Notre Dame fends off upset, tops Pitt 19-14


Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS

Then-quarterback for Notre Dame DeShone Kizer scores a touchdown on a 2-yard against Pitt in the fourth quarter at Heinz Field Nov. 7, 2015. Notre Dame won 42-30.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

Pitt came into South Bend as 21-point underdogs, having lost both games to ranked opponents earlier this season by a combined margin of 96-20. But through three quarters, it looked like the Panthers were about to stun the nation for the third straight year, holding a one-point lead over undefeated No. 5 Notre Dame.

Like their last meeting at Notre Dame in 2012, however, it wasn’t meant to be. The Fighting Irish (7-0) indeed fought their way back, taking their first lead, 19-14, with 5:43 left in the game. That would prove to be the final score.

Junior quarterback Ian Book showed grit and flashed his Heisman candidacy, leading the way in an otherwise defense-oriented battle with 26 completions on 32 attempts for 264 yards and two touchdowns, while also throwing two interceptions.

For Pitt, it was another game, another missed opportunity. Fans will likely cite two missed field goals and a questionable fake punt call as primary reasons for the loss, but the Panthers just didn’t bring their A-game on offense, earning a season-low 242 yards.

After forcing Notre Dame to punt on its first drive — largely thanks to a 16-yard sack by sophomore defensive end Rashad Weaver — the Pitt offense took over for the first time on its own 12 yard line.

The Panthers proceeded to put together a beautiful drive, methodically marching down the field 88 yards on 17 plays, eating up 10 minutes of the clock. Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett was particularly efficient, completing five passes to five different receivers.

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson also unveiled a new weapon: the wildcat formation. Previously unseen this season, the unique alignment placed senior running back Qadree Ollison all alone in the shotgun, with more blockers than usual on the line of scrimmage. The wildcat must have surprised Notre Dame’s defense, as Ollison converted a third down and eventually scored from nine yards out while taking the direct snap.

On Notre Dame’s ensuing drive, Pitt stunned the South Bend crowd once again when sophomore defensive back Jason Pinnock intercepted a pass from Book. However, the Panthers couldn’t maintain momentum and punted after going three-and-out.

After exchanging punts, Notre Dame began to find its footing with eight minutes left in the second quarter. The Fighting Irish drove 44 yards down to the Pitt five yard line before facing a fourth-down decision: go for the touchdown or kick a field goal. Head coach Brian Kelly elected the latter, and senior kicker Justin Yoon converted the 22-yard attempt to make the score 7-3 Pitt.

Pitt’s offense stalled again on its next possession, giving Notre Dame the opportunity to score before half’s end. The Panthers bent but didn’t break, allowing the Fighting Irish to get no farther than the 24 yard line before forcing a fourth down. Yoon knocked down his second field goal of the day, this time a 41-yarder, to close the deficit to 7-6 entering halftime.

Despite holding a one-point lead, Pitt’s offense still struggled in the first half, earning just 100 total yards. The defense, however, kept the Panthers in the game by holding Notre Dame to 128 yards.

On the first play of the second half, Pitt junior receiver Maurice Ffrench scored as many points and gained as many yards as the entire team in the whole first half.

Ffrench provided instant offense by taking the opening kickoff all the way back for a 99-yard return touchdown, silencing the stadium and extending Pitt’s lead to 14-6.

Like they did after their first touchdown, the Panther defense responded by intercepting Book on the next possession. The turnover was a team effort, with first-year defensive lineman Jaylen Twyman hitting Book and forcing him to throw a duck into the air, which junior defensive back Jazzee Stocker caught and returned to Pitt’s 22-yard line.

From there, the Panther offense progressed to the opposing 29 yard line, setting up a 47-yard field goal try for sophomore kicker Alex Kessman. Kessman set the Heinz Field record twice the prior week with kicks of 54 and 55 yards, but whiffed on this attempt to keep Pitt’s lead at eight points.

The Fighting Irish finally found the end zone on their next possession, marking the team’s latest first touchdown in a game this season. Book was instrumental on the drive, completing all six of his passes for 67 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown completion to junior receiver Chase Claypool. Notre Dame would fail on the extra point attempt, allowing Pitt to maintain a 14-12 lead with 2:09 left in the third quarter.

Pitt saw a great chance to extend its lead early in the fourth quarter, setting Kessman up for a 36-yard field goal attempt on fourth down. But Kessman again struggled from the right hash, missing wide right.

Notre Dame’s offense would make Kessman pay for those misses; six minutes later, Book found senior receiver Miles Boykin for a perfectly-placed 35-yard touchdown pass, giving the Fighting Irish their first lead of the game, 19-14.

The Panthers got the ball with 5:34 left in the game, with the opportunity to conduct a game-winning drive. But the offense fell flat, quickly facing a fourth-and-four situation. Pitt lined up to punt, but snapped the ball to junior backup quarterback Jeff George Jr., who rolled out but saw no open receivers. George Jr. threw the ball away, setting Notre Dame up with prime field position to put the game away.

Pitt’s defense responded with a fourth-down stop of its own, sacking Book in the backfield to set up a true do-or-die scenario: down five points with 2:35 remaining and 62 yards to score.

The offense dug itself in a whole right away, with Pickett getting sacked for a 14-yard loss on the very first play. Then on third down, Pickett threw a forward pass after crossing the line of scrimmage, moving the ball back even further and setting the team up for a practically impossible fourth-and-29. Pickett chucked a bomb to junior receiver Tre Tipton, which he caught — out of bounds, however.

That incompletion essentially ended the game, allowing Notre Dame to kneel the clock out and hold on for the 19-14 win.

Pitt finished the game with a season-low 242 offensive yards, while the defense held Notre Dame to 344 yards — the least since opening week against Albany. No offensive player stood out in this war of attrition; Hall led the team with 62 rushing yards on nine attempts, while Pickett completed 19 of 28 passes for 126 yards.

With the loss, the Panthers fall to 3-4 on the season, but remain 2-1 in the ACC. This was the team’s third loss to a ranked team, although it was far closer than the first two — a 51-6 loss to Penn State and a 45-14 loss to Central Florida. Pitt will likely get one last opportunity for an upset in the season finale against a ranked Miami team. For now, the Panthers will use their upcoming bye week to prepare for Duke on Oct. 27.

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