Football: Panthers fall short in South Bend

By Alex Oltmanns

The Pitt offense moved the ball effectively and the defense came up big when it had to against… The Pitt offense moved the ball effectively and the defense came up big when it had to against Notre Dame on Saturday.

But it was special teams that did them in, losing 23-17 to Notre Dame.

With a missed 27-yard field goal by the usually reliable Dan Hutchins and a botched hold on another field goal attempt, the kicking game left six points on the field in the second quarter.

Six points that would have tied the game in the fourth quarter when Panther quarterback Tino Sunseri hit Jon Baldwin for a 53-yard touchdown pass.

“Our holder dropped the ball. He spun the ball and lost control of it,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “(Hutchins) is as good and dependable of a kicker as we have and he just pushed it to the right. It was a bad day kicking field goals.”

The Fighting Irish moved the ball up and down the field in the first half, scoring 17 points as their no huddle spread offense seemed to give the Panthers fits.

At one point in the second quarter, Notre Dame quarterback  Dayne Crist had completed 11 straight passes en route to finishing 24 for 39 with 242 yards and a touchdown.

“They had us off balance defensively with the no huddle offense at a faster tempo than we could have ever practiced,” Wannstedt said. “That kind of got us on our heels a little bit in the first half.”

Crist connected with receiver Michael Floyd for a 1-yard touchdown and then called his own number when he ran for a 10-yard touchdown with 6:23 left in the second quarter to push the Notre Dame (3-3) lead to 14-3.

But the defense adjusted to the Irish offense and stepped up in the second half, allowing only one first down in the third quarter and gave the offense a chance to cut into the lead.

“We started playing like we know we can in the second half,” Pitt linebacker Max Gruder said. “The thing that’s so frustrating to me is we can play that well and it’s so obvious how well we can play. But all that’s taken away by the way we played in the first half.”

Sunseri led his team into the red zone three times in the first half, but the Panthers weren’t quite able to punch the ball into the end zone and the kicking game wasn’t able to capitalize.

“In the first half we’re moving the ball, we have to settle for attempted field goals and we don’t finish the drive,” Wannstedt said. “We have to get the ball in the end zone.”

But in the second half, the Pitt offense was able to get the ball across the goal line.

Sunseri ran for a 4-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 20-10 with 4:50 left in the third quarter that got his team back in the game before his long touchdown pass to Baldwin, who caught nine passes for 111 yards.

Sunseri finished the game 27-39 with 272 yards with two total touchdowns and an interception.

“I thought he made good decisions,” Wannstedt said. “For the most part I thought he did a good job.”

But with the ball, backed inside their own 10 yard line, down six with under two minutes to go, the Panthers didn’t have quite enough to move the ball.

On fourth down and four, Sunseri’s pass to Baldwin was broken up to seal the win for the Irish.

But despite that, it was Sunseri’s best passing game of the season, going a perfect eight for eight to start the game.

“Each and every week I feel I’m growing and learning,” Sunseri said.

Pitt running back Dion Lewis returned to the lineup after missing the team’s last game against FIU with an upper body injury and finished with 64 yards on 13 carries while fellow running back Ray Graham had 44 yards on eight carries.

Pitt, now 2-3, hasn’t gotten off to the start it had hoped going into this season, but the team knows that everything can turn around once its Big East schedule starts next Saturday at Syracuse.

“We have to get better,” defensive end Jabaal Sheard said. “We have to work hard, do the small things and get ready for the Big East.”