Football: Pitt falls to Notre Dame, 15-12

By Lauren Kirschman

It’s become a familiar story: the Pitt struggles in the fourth quarter, this time giving up a… In a game during which both teams struggled to score, Notre Dame finished a drive when it mattered the most, overcoming a fourth-quarter deficit to defeat the Pitt football team 15-12 at Heinz Field on Saturday.

Trailing 12-7, Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees found tight end Tyler Eifert in the end zone with 6:48 remaining in the game, and then hit him again for the two-point conversion to produce the final score.

The Panthers could’ve pulled away earlier in the game, but penalities and twice settling for field goals instead of touchdowns kept

Pitt from building its advantage. Pitt took nine penalties for 55 yards.

Sunseri said it’s frustrating for the team to be so close to effectively executing head coach Todd Graham’s system and then falling short.

“We just have to learn how to finish in every way,” Sunseri said. “And we’re going to. We’re so close we can touch it. That’s the big thing … we feel like we are inches away from really busting this open.”

The Panthers tried to reclaim the lead on their final drive of the game, but the Irish sacked Tino Sunseri twice and the Pitt offense stalled, allowing Notre Dame to take over and run out the clock.

In Pitt’s first two games of the season, the Panthers’ fourth-quarter struggles allowed Buffalo and Maine to score late in the game. Last week against Iowa, the Panthers led by as much as 24-3 in the third quarter, but Pitt allowed the Hawkeyes to score on almost every possession after that before losing 31-27.

Defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said the Panthers are also close to putting together a complete game on the defensive side of the ball. He agreed that it’s frustrating to feel like the team has improved so much over the last two games but doesn’t have a win to show for it.

But he added that the Panthers won’t lose confidence.

“It’s not like the game against [Miami] last year when we got smacked 31-3,” he said. “We’re smashing Iowa by 21 points and then we’re beating [Notre Dame] all game. We still are very confident and we still have a very good team.”

“I was proud of the plan we had,” Graham said of the loss to Notre Dame. “We’re capable of playing good coverage. We pressured the quarterback. We had a great plan. Defensively, I thought we played well enough to win the game.”

The Panthers held Notre Dame’s star wide receiver, Michael Floyd, to four catches for 27 yards. Before the game, Floyd ranked fourth nationally with 10.3 receptions and 132.3 receiving yards per game.

“They did a nice job. I thought we adjusted to the things we needed to,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “I think it’s the first time that somebody really aggressively tried to take Mike out of the game, and it opened up some things for us, obviously, as well.”

Eifert led the Irish in receiving with eight catches for 75 yards. Rees finished with 216 yards and a touchdown on 24-41 passing.

The number of penalties really hurt Pitt, Sunseri said, because each one places the Panthers in a difficult situation, and it’s hard for the team to overcome negative plays.

Running back Ray Graham agreed.

“We preach so much about penalties and being a more disciplined team out there,” he said. “The penalties just take you off course and slow you down.”

Sunseri added that a lot of the blame for penalties falls on him because he needs to speak louder and make sure that the offense can hear his voice. False starts accounted for five of Pitt’s nine penalties.

“We had three false starts in the first half,” Graham said. “I think our players were kind of antsy.”

Notre Dame also sacked Pitt’s quarterback five times to go along with the penalties. Coach Graham said Sunseri needs to get rid of the ball faster to avoid the sacks, and Sunseri agreed.

“The line is cutting, and I’m not used to the line cutting and then working back,” he said. “That’s a little bit less time for the quarterback in the pocket. I need to be able to make that adjustment.”

Redshirt sophomore Cory King made his first career start, replacing Chris Jacobson at left guard. Jacobson will miss the rest of the season because of a knee injury he sustained in the fourth quarter against Iowa.

Jacobson, a redshirt senior, will petition the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility.

King said he was nervous last night, but settled down after the first play. Even though he makes mistakes, King said that he always puts forth his best effort.

“I just need to get in and watch the film,” he said.”There are some things I need to improve on, and I’ll try to get better every week.”

After going into the break trailing 7-6, Pitt took the lead during the third quarter .

A roughing-the-kicker penalty gave the Panthers another chance on their first drive of the second half, and Sunseri used a 10-yard rush and a 10-yard pass to wide receiver Mike Shanahan to help move the team down the field.

Sunseri found tight end Hubie Graham in the end zone to put Pitt ahead 12-7. Backup quarterback Trey Anderson — who played the third series in the first half — came in to attempt the two-point conversion but was unsuccessful.

Todd Graham said he planned to use Anderson in the third series this game and that the trend might continue in order to get the backup quarterback some experience.

Pitt got on the board first during the game after Greg Williams recovered a fumble at the Notre Dame 23. The Panthers, although unable to convert the good field position into a touchdown, went ahead 3-0 when Kevin Harper hit a 45-yard field goal.

Notre Dame answered early in the second quarter. Jonas Gray broke through the Pitt defense for 79 yards and a touchdown to put the Fighting Irish ahead 7-3.

Harper hit a 23-yard field goal to make the score 7-6, still in favor of Notre Dame, after Pitt couldn’t convert a third-down-and-1 from the 2-yard line.

The Irish missed a field goal with 19 seconds remaining in the second half, and the teams went into the break with Notre Dame leading 7-6.

Sunseri threw for 165 yards on 22-30 passing and a touchdown, and Ray Graham led the charge on the ground with 89 yards on 21 carries. Graham also finished with 43 receiving yards. Wide receiver Mike Shanahan had 64.

Pitt racked up 268 yards of total offense to Notre Dame’s 398.

The Panthers will return to the field on Thursday to take on South Florida at Heinz Field in their Big East opener. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m.

“It starts tonight,” Alecxih said. “I am going to go in there and watch some extra film on South Florida, and tomorrow we’re going to get rolling.”