Football: Renewing a rivalry

By Jay Huerbin

Eighth-ranked Pitt hosts Notre Dame on Saturday. Heinz Field will be sold out — and fittingly so, as the Panthers and Fighting Irish are one of the most storied rivalries in collegiate football.

Their historic rivalry comes as a result of successful programs and individuals within the programs. The Fighting Irish have 11 national titles, seven Heisman Trophy winners and 95 All-Americans. The Panthers, however, have nine titles, one Heisman winner and 49 All-Americans.

But this success, for both teams, has not always been constant, and it hasn’t always come at the same time. Their series is one of streaks, upsets and memories.

Periods of greatness

The 2009 game will mark the 65th meeting between the two teams and, despite Notre Dame holding a 44-19-1 all-time record against Pitt, they have played in some of the most memorable games for fans of both teams.

Pitt is Notre Dame’s fifth most-played opponent, and Notre Dame is Pitt’s third most-played. Since the start of the series in 1909, their streak of playing each other every year was broken only three different stretches.

During the 1930s, Pitt went 5-3 against the Fighting Irish, including three consecutive shutouts, forcing Notre Dame to back away from scheduling games against Pitt until 1942. And in the 1960s and ‘70s, despite the success of running back Tony Dorsett in the mid-’70s, Pitt had trouble against the Irish and didn’t schedule a game against Notre Dame from 1979-81 — the Panthers went 11-1 in those three seasons.

Current head coach Dave Wannstedt, who was an offensive tackle for three seasons with Pitt in the early ‘70s, never beat the Fighting Irish as a player.

“Notre Dame is one of those schools that has great tradition and great national tradition,” he said. “Maybe the most nationally recognized team in the country.”

In 1975, he was named a graduate assistant for the Panthers and was part of the Panthers’ wins against the Fighting Irish in ’75 and ’76.

Dorsett’s dominance

For three decades in the middle of the century, the Panthers struggled against the Fighting Irish. In 30 seasons, between 1943 and 1973, Pitt won only four games.

But in the early-’70s, the Panthers recruited a running back from nearby Beaver County. Expectations for Tony Dorsett were high and for good reason, as he won the Heisman Trophy and a national championship in 1976.

When Dorsett first arrived, Pitt had a hard time beating Notre Dame. But in his four years at the University, he helped turn the series around.

In 1973, Notre Dame visited Pittsburgh, and, despite giving up 209 yards to Dorsett, the Fighting Irish walked out with a 31-10 victory. A year later, in South Bend, Ind., Dorsett ran for only 61 yards, but the Panthers closed in on the Fighting Irish in a 14-10 loss.

The ‘74 loss was the 10th consecutive one for the Panthers, and since 1961, the Panthers had won only two games against the Irish. But with Dorsett in the backfield, the Panthers were a dangerous team — and quickly catching up on Notre Dame.

Sam Sciullo Jr., an author and former member of Pitt’s Sports Information Office, said that despite troubles in the past, Dorsett’s dominance over Notre Dame changed the series.

“After that game, you sort of just knew that the gap was closing,” he said. “And the next year Pitt beat them 34-20, and Tony D ran for 303 yards.”

The 1975 matchup between the two teams and Dorsett’s performance is still a record for the Panthers and one of the strongest performances by a Pitt team.

“You could see in 1973 that Pitt lost to Notre Dame, which won the championship, 31-10,” Sciullo said. “But by the time Dorsett was a senior, Pitt beat Notre Dame, 31-10, and won the national championship and he won the Heisman.”

After Pitt defeated Notre Dame in 1975, the Panthers went on to win five of the next eight matchups, heading into the mid-’80s.

Goodbye, Pitt. Hello, Pittsburgh

In 1924, the University unveiled its plan to open a new stadium for the football team. A year later, the Panthers moved into Pitt Stadium.

The team would stay there until 1999, when the stadium was demolished and replaced with the Petersen Events Center. Despite a 4-5 record heading into the final game at Pitt Stadium, a Nov. 13 matchup against Notre Dame, 60,190 fans packed into the stands. It was the largest crowd at the stadium in 16 years.

“It was big. We had to win, there was no other way about it,” former head coach Walt Harris said. “It was the place to be in Pittsburgh that night.”

The Panthers controlled much of the 58th matchup from the beginning. Pitt scored touchdowns as Notre Dame kicked field goals. The Panthers held a 14-6 lead at half and a Kevan Barlow touchdown less than six minutes into the third quarter put the Panthers up by 15 — they would go on to win the game, 37-27.

“We were elated,” Harris said about the feeling in the locker room after the game. “We were a program that hadn’t won in a while, and the last time Notre Dame played us at Pitt Stadium, they hammered us.”

It was the Panthers’ first win against Notre Dame since 1987 and a fitting way to leave Pitt Stadium.

The game featured a lot of Pittsburgh history. Barlow, a Pittsburgh native, is the last player to score a touchdown at Pitt Stadium, and another local player, Robby Butler, is the last to touch a football at the stadium.

But it was the fans — not players, the half-time show or closing ceremonies — that sent off Pitt Stadium.

With nine seconds remaining on the game clock, students and fans poured onto the surface of Pitt Stadium.

The officials waved off the final seconds, and Pitt won the game. With all the commotion, the sight and sounds of fans on the field didn’t bother Harris.

“We were pretty happy to get the pressure off,” Harris said, laughing. “It was the excitement of winning. There were a lot of great moments that night.”

Harris and the Panthers finished the 1999 season with a 5-6 record but made history by defeating Notre Dame for the first time in 12 years.

Palko’s performance

The last time the Panthers earned a trip to a BCS Bowl game was in 2004, when they appeared in the Fiesta Bowl against then-No. 6 Utah, but it wasn’t easy getting there. A mid-November matchup against Notre Dame propelled the Panthers to a three-game winning streak to end the season.

With three games remaining, Pitt was 5-3 and found itself in a shootout in Notre Dame Stadium, a place it hadn’t won at in 17 years. No team led by more than seven points, and no lead was safe for more than five or six minutes.

Freshman quarterback Brady Quinn led the Fighting Irish, but the Panthers also had a young starter ready to win. Pittsburgh native Tyler Palko, who saw limited action in 2002 and redshirted the 2003 season, was in his first year as a starter when the Panthers made the trip to South Bend.

“Going in there, I think all of us knew how big the game was as we went into Notre Dame Stadium,” Palko said. “But to be honest, at that time, everybody on the team was focused on getting a win.”

Palko made sure they got that win. He threw for 334 yards and five touchdowns, throwing to 10 different receivers, in the game as the Panthers won 41-38.

Midway through the fourth quarter, Palko put together a 13 play, 69-yard drive that ended with his fifth touchdown pass of the day. The score put Pitt up 38-35 with less than three minutes remaining, but Quinn had a drive of his own that tied the game with 1:11 left in the game.

With a full set of timeouts to start the final drive, Palko hit tight end Erik Gill on three consecutive passes — including a 37-yard catch-and-run on the first play that put the Panthers in Notre Dame territory.

Palko marched down the field and set up Josh Cummings for a 32-yard field goal with one second remaining. Cummings was 12 for 17 up to that point in the season, but converted a 27-yard kick earlier in the fourth quarter.

“Everybody was just waiting for the ball to get snapped, to have a good kick and see the referees raise their hands,” Palko said about the feeling on the sideline. “It was an intense moment.”

Cummings kick was good and, following Notre Dame’s unsuccessful kickoff return attempt, Pitt won its first game in South Bend since 1987.

“It was fun. The Pitt-Notre Dame rivalry dates back a long time,” Palko said. “It’s a rivalry game that both teams take seriously, and I was just happy to be a part of it and happy to play in a game and help Pitt beat Notre Dame.”

Pitt’s win against Notre Dame was the first of a three-game winning streak to end the regular season.

A rivalry restored

A little more than a year ago, on a November afternoon in South Bend, the Pittsburgh Panthers and Notre Dame Fighting Irish squared off in a game that would test how strong the 2008 Panthers really were.

The Panthers entered the game 6-2, but had just suffered a disappointing loss to Rutgers the week before in Pittsburgh. This would become a career game for senior placekicker Conor Lee, and both teams set school records in a dramatic, quadruple-overtime battle.

“It was surreal,” Lee recalled. “You grow up hearing about Notre Dame as a kid, especially with my parents, and you know how big of a national power they are. Playing in Notre Dame Stadium was surreal and to beat them the way we did was like a storybook ending.”

Following the Rutgers loss, Notre Dame didn’t make things any easier for Pitt as two second-quarter Jimmy Clausen touchdown passes, less than two minutes apart, put the Fighting Irish up 17-3 at halftime.

But the Panthers fought back and tied the game at 24-24 late in the fourth quarter to send the game into overtime — four overtimes to be exact.

The overtime periods were ground battles, as both running backs inched their teams closer to an elusive touchdown. Lee and Notre Dame kicker Brandon Walker kicked back and forth until Walker failed to convert on a 38-yard field goal.

After three LeSean McCoy rushes, including an 18-yard run, Lee nailed a 22-yard field goal on second down to secure the victory.

It was the longest game played in the history of both Pitt and Notre Dame, but the pressure didn’t affect Lee.

“To be honest, it was a really short kick, it was like an extra point,” Lee said. “I was thinking to myself, ‘Whenever I make this kick, I want to run up to my teammates and celebrate the win with them.’ I was thinking about how we’re going to celebrate. I was focused, but I was excited.”

The victory marked the Panthers second win in Notre Dame since 1986, with the other win occuring four years prior in the 2004 matchup.

Any victory over the Fighting Irish is important to the Panthers, but at 6-2, the Panthers were desperate for another win.

The season before, the Panthers jumped out to a 6-1 record, but lost five consecutive games and failed to earn a Bowl invite.

“We wanted to win and we had to win,” Lee said. “Plus we were playing Notre Dame … and we were really anxious to get that seventh win.”

Lee and the Panthers went on to finish the season 9-3 and earned their first Bowl bid in Dave Wannstedt’s career.

Into the future

In 2006, the Panthers and Fighting Irish agreed to an eight-game, 10-year contract.

Because the two teams did not meet in either 2007 or 2008, the rivalry will take place almost year until 2015.