SOUTH BEND – For nearly three years Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly has talked about the importance of finishing with his players. On Saturday, those Fighting Irish young men did a whole lot of things wrong, but in the end, they finished and that is what counts.
Third-ranked Notre Dame won its ninth game without a defeat by making enough plays when it absolutely had to, and certainly found a way to overcome its own ineptitude, as it survived against Pittsburgh 29-26 in triple overtime in front of 80,795 fans at Notre Dame Stadium.
“We overcame a lot,” Kelly said. “We made uncharacteristically some mistakes.”
Yes the Irish did and where to start in listing them.
Notre Dame opened the game with a pair of long drives (14 and 18 plays, respectively) that resulted in just six points.
“We left points out there that should’ve been on the board,” Kelly said.
Kelly’s kids threw a pair of interceptions (one by starting quarterback Everett Golson and one by his back-up Tommy Rees).
In the second overtime period, Irish runner Cierre Wood dove into the end zone for apparently a potential game-winning score only to fumble it away.
A week after shutting down the rushing attack of eighth-ranked Oklahoma, Notre Dame allowed the Panthers (4-4) to rush for 144 total yards, including 172 yards by Pitt’s Ray Graham.
Are those enough examples of poor execution? Wait, there’s more.
In last week’s win over the Sooners, the Irish committed just one penalty. Against Pittsburgh, that number ballooned to six.
There, that is enough.
“Last year, that game would’ve been a loss for us,” Kelly said. “But our team kept playing and kept fighting.”
Notre Dame trailed 20-6 early in the final quarter, yet they finished by getting an 11-yard touchdown reception from receiver TJ Jones on a pass from Golson to pull to within 20-12. It was 20-12 and not 20-13 because Notre Dame kicker Kyle Brindza, who missed an earlier field goal, couldn’t overcome a bad snap on the extra point and the kick failed.
So again, there were a lot of mistakes to overcome by the Irish.
Following a Notre Dame defensive stand, Notre Dame drove 91 yards in 15 plays and were poised to potentially tie the game when Golson, who had been benched for Rees in the first half, but returned in the third quarter, threw a perfect pass – to a Panther defender – in the end zone.
“Everett missed a number of things that we thought he needed to have down by this time,” Kelly said.
But to Golson’s credit, the sophomore found a way to finish.
He came right back on the next series and hit receiver DaVaris Daniels for a 45-yard gain, and then connected with running back Theo Riddick for a five-yard score, which pulled his team to within 20-18. Golson’s two-point conversion run tied the game with just over two minutes remaining.
“I thought Everett competed his butt off,” Kelly said. “He’s not perfect, but boy he competes.”
In the first overtime, both teams managed field goals and the game went to a second extra session. Notre Dame was running the ball successfully and appeared to take a lead on Wood’s scoring dive, but his fumble returned the ball to Pittsburgh. However, a 33-yard field goal attempt by the Panthers sailed wide right and Notre Dame got another opportunity to finish the game as victors.
“I’m proud of the way our guys fought and persevered,” Kelly said. “When it didn’t look good, they kept believing.”
In the third overtime, Pittsburgh got a 44-yard kick to take a 26-23 lead. However, for one final time, Notre Dame was called upon to finish the game and this time it did.
Golson completed a pass to Riddick and then three plays later snuck in from one-yard out to win the game.
“Man, Everett just kept competing in the second half and found a way for us to get enough points,” Kelly said.
Golson finished the game with 23 completions in 42 passing attempts for 227 yards. He also rushed for 74 yards.
Riddick and Wood ran for 85 and 70 yards, respectively, while DaVaris Daniels (seven receptions for 86 yards), Tyler Eifert (six catches for 62 yards), Robby Toma (six catches for 50 yards), and Jones (five catches for 53 yards) led the receiving corps.
Defensively, Notre Dame was paced by Dan Fox with nine tackles, while Prince Shembo (eight tackles, including one sack and two tackles for a loss) and Manti Te’o (seven tackles, including one for a loss and a half-sack) also contributed.
With the victory, Notre Dame stays alive in the chase for a berth in the BCS national championship game.
The Irish will travel to Boston College on Saturday at either noon or 8 p.m. (ABC).