Kirschman: Playing Notre Dame always draws intrigue

By Lauren Kirschman

The Pitt football team will enter the spotlight once again this weekend with a chance to prove… The Pitt football team will enter the spotlight once again this weekend with a chance to prove itself on the national stage.

The first two times didn’t go so well.

The Panthers stumbled in their season opener against Utah, and then Miami throttled them on ESPN to the tune of 31-3.

This weekend offered a glimmer of hope when a rearranged offensive line toppled Florida International University 44-17.

But that was Florida International. This Saturday, it’s Notre Dame.

Sure, Notre Dame isn’t the Notre Dame of the past. The Fighting Irish are 2-3 and unranked with losses to Michigan, Michigan State and Stanford on their record. But it’s still Notre Dame, the team everyone — except Notre Dame fans and people who jump on the bandwagon because they are Irish, Catholic or a combination of the two — loves to hate.

There’s a mystique surrounding Notre Dame. There always will be. There’s a reason why Notre Dame sells out Heinz Field, why last year students sat in line in the cold for hours and then nearly trampled each other for wristbands.

Simply put, it’s Notre Dame. Really, nothing else needs to be said.

The list of reasons other college football fans dislike the Fighting Irish is long and growing: the NBC contract that requires the station to air all Notre Dame home games regardless of the opponent, the perceived arrogance of their fans  — even though they haven’t been a team worth being even slightly arrogant about since 2006, when they went 10-3 and still lost to LSU 41-14 in the Sugar Bowl — Touchdown Jesus, Rudy and those previously discussed bandwagon fans.

And now, just to add a little annoyance for Pitt fans, Brian Kelly is the head coach. Yes, the same Brian Kelly who coached Cincinnati to that little victory at Heinz Field last year, keeping the Panthers from the Big East Championship and a BCS bowl game.

Here’s the good news for Pitt fans: The Panthers have had some recent success against the Fighting Irish.

Last year, Pitt defeated Notre Dame 27-22 at Heinz Field. The Panthers led by as many as 18 points in the fourth quarter and held off a late Fighting Irish rally. Lewis ran for 154 yards, Bill Stull threw for 236 yards and a touchdown and Jon Baldwin had 142 receiving yards.

Two years ago, Pitt and Notre Dame played a classic, four-overtime game in South Bend. Conor Lee won the game with a 22-yard field goal to seal the 36-33 victory. The Panthers rallied back after falling behind 17-3 at halftime, forcing overtime with a touchdown pass from Pat Bostick to Baldwin with 2:22 remaining in regulation. LeSean McCoy rushed for 169 yards, and Bostick threw for 164 yards.

In 2004, Tyler Palko threw five touchdown passes, completing 26 of 42 passes for 334 yards as he guided the Panthers to their first victory in South Bend since 1986. He led the Panthers on a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter that ended in a field goal.

Every one of those games is memorable. Regardless of records, Pitt vs. Notre Dame will always be an important game, one Pitt fans circle on their schedules. It’s a rivalry for the Fighting Irish faithful, too, as Pitt is Notre Dame’s fifth-most-played college football opponent.

Ask Pitt fans about some of the best games in recent memory, and at least two of those wins come to mind.

Would those victories have been as memorable if they didn’t come against Notre Dame? Maybe.

But it makes it that much sweeter that they did.