Too Little, Too Lateposted by John Vannie
In the first segment of the game, both offenses failed to sustain drives and the punting units battled for field position. By the middle of the second quarter, the teams had managed only to exchange field goals. Pittsburgh took control of a 3-3 game when they struck for the first touchdown of the evening on consecutive passes of 22 and 36 yards from Bill Stull to Jonathan Baldwin. Baldwin’s acrobatic catch over Darrin Walls in the end zone made it 10-3 Panthers at the half.
Pitt’s dominance continued into the third period, which featured another great catch by Baldwin to set up a field goal and a 53-yard run by Ray Graham through numerous and futile tackling attempts by the Irish. Graham scored from two yards out on the next play to extend the Panther lead to 20-3.
Notre Dame’s attempt to mount a comeback on its next possession nearly stalled, but Weis surprised Pitt’s defense by calling a play action bomb on fourth and one inside his own territory. Jimmy Clausen’s long heave reached Michael Floyd at the Panther 16, and the Irish quarterback snuck in for a score moments later on the first play of the fourth quarter. A missed extra point kept the margin at 20-9.
Freshman Dion Lewis answered with a 50 yard burst of his own through the middle of Notre Dame’s defense, and the Panthers recovered to a 27-9 advantage with 12:44 left. As has been the case on many occasions in the final quarter this season, Clausen went to work with Golden Tate and Michael Floyd to produce a quick touchdown. Injuries to Pitt at the cornerback position during the game left them vulnerable, and Clausen took full advantage. The drive ended successfully when Tate caught a pass in the flat and dove into the end zone to finish an 18-yard scoring play.
The Irish then needed to stop a Panther rushing attack that had progressively built up steam as the game progressed. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt elected to pass, however, and his offense quickly went three and out. Dan Hutchins’ punt carried inside the Notre Dame 20 yard line once again, but this time Tate found running room and burst through the coverage for an 87-yard score. The Irish failed on a two point conversion attempt and trailed by 27-22 with a healthy 7:16 remaining. Tate’s return was the team’s first score this season by a unit other than the offense.
When Stull hit Baldwin for 20 yards on the next series, it looked as though Pittsburgh would hold on for the win. Notre Dame then caught a break when Stull fumbled the snap on a third and one play, but the Panthers recovered and Hutchins pinned the Irish back to their own 20 with 3:39 left. Clausen trotted onto the field as Notre Dame fans prayed for another last minute miracle.
Hopes were quickly doused, however, as a chop block penalty on guard Dan Wenger put the Irish in a hole and extreme pressure from Pitt’s defensive ends caused Clausen’s passes to hit the turf. Insult was added to injury when the replay officials ruled that a third down incompletion was actually a fumble, and the Panthers used the gift to run out the clock.
As with recent games against USC and Navy, the Irish could not overcome poor play with last minute heroics. It’s a positive reflection on their character that the players do not quit, but this is little consolation when they are outplayed and outcoached until their backs are against the wall. Defensively, Notre Dame performed well in several series but were victimized too often by the big play on the ground and through the air.
Let’s look at a few questions that helped determine the outcome:
Will Notre Dame’s run/pass mix indicate a greater degree of balance and success in the ground game? Absolutely not. Clausen threw 42 passes while Irish backs had only 18 rushing attempts. Once again, Weis inexplicably abandoned the run well before it made sense to do so.
Can the Irish protect Clausen? Another resounding “No”. Tackles Sam Young and Paul Duncan were embarrassed by Pittsburgh rushers Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus, who caused numerous incompletions and throwaways.
Can the Notre Dame defense hold Pitt to less than four yards per rush? Sadly, no. The Panthers averaged 6.0 yards per carry.
Which team will gain an advantage from special teams? Tate’s return salvaged another woeful punting display by Notre Dame, while Hutchins continually pinned the Irish deep in their own territory.
Can Notre Dame stop the Panthers in the red zone? The Irish held Pitt to field goals on a couple of occasions, but it was the 50+ yard runs and the deep pass to Baldwin that killed them.
Will Stull be able to maintain a high passing efficiency? While not necessarily impressive, Stull hurt Notre Dame by finding Baldwin at critical points in the game.
After a tumultuous week, will the Irish be emotionally high for this game? Not especially. Brian Smith made a lot of noise prior to kickoff, but he absolutely disappeared once the game started.
Which team will be most successful in the fourth quarter? Notre Dame scored three touchdowns, but Lewis’ 50-yard romp and a strong pass rush helped the Panthers survive.
Does Pitt deserve a top ten ranking? Probably not, but a Big East schedule provides a lot of cover.
Notre Dame will finish its home slate against UConn next week and conclude the regular season at Stanford. The team’s bowl prospects are falling below the second tier at this point and one has to wonder who will be on hand to coach the team in the postseason. It’s almost certain that Weis’ 35-25 career record will not secure his retention when the exact same result doomed his predecessors. Furthermore, the Irish are playing poorly at this point in the season when the better teams in the country are hitting their stride. A repeat of last year’s awful November is a clear indication that this is more than an alarming coincidence.