Notre Dame football: Critical mistakes wreck Irish season

South Bend Tribune

PITTSBURGH -- Three bonehead plays in less than four minutes. The Irish flinched and deserved what they got.

In a span of less than four minutes in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame made three mistakes that ultimately cost the Irish a football game — and basically their season — Saturday night.

Two Tommy Rees interceptions — one in the red zone and one in Irish territory — and a fumble that several Irish didn't make the effort to recover paved the way for Pitt to pull off a stunning 28-21 victory.

Notre Dame's 2013 season officially died with loss No. 3 at Heinz Field.

It was a painful death.

There were hints early, but the fatal, self-inflicted blows came quickly and without warning.

It's one thing if Notre Dame had played itself into a position for a BCS berth and fell to a highly-ranked Stanford team. It's another for the opportunity for a win to come crumbling to an end against an underdog that it should have beaten and with two games still left on the table.

Positives won't come easily after this one.

Notre Dame couldn't dodge Pitt like it did Navy last week. The impending bye week will be a serious challenge for head coach Brian Kelly and his players.

Getting receiver TJ Jones involved in the run game gave the Irish another dimension and added a quality athlete to the mix. Kickoff coverage, which was leaky against Navy, had its holes again. The Panthers broke a 50-yarder early.

Figuring out a way to beat Pitt took longer than it should have. The Irish, who had success with several big-chunk plays, struggled with consistency.

Jones caught an 80-yard touchdown pass from Rees. He also had a 35-yard run from scrimmage. Tight end Ben Koyack hauled in a 38-yard pass that set up a TD, and George Atkinson had a 33-yard rush.

Probably the best job of the night was done by the Irish offensive line. Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald came into the game as the nation's most notorious tackle for loss guy. He wasn't a factor all night.

Two red-zone turnovers: A fumble by Jones and an interception by Rees added to the problems.

Rest will only help a defense staggered by injuries. A missed tackle by safety Matthias Farley turned a 20-yard Pitt reception into a 63-yard TD catch and run. A pass interference penalty on corner Bennett Jackson opened the door for another score.

Don't forget the Prince Shembo sack early in the fourth quarter. The ball was dislodged from Pitt quarterback Tom Savage's hand before he had a chance to throw it. However, Irish players neglected to pick up the live ball. Pitt ultimately got it back. Don't they teach falling on the ball in junior high?

Way too many struggles against a less than prolific offense.

Of course, it didn't help that Notre Dame played the last three quarters without its best defensive lineman.

College football's ambiguous rule of targeting had a significant impact on Irish on the second play of the second quarter. Savage scrambled and ran toward the Irish sidelines. Savage lowered his shoulder and was met by Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt.

Tuitt dropped his shoulder, but ended up leading with his helmet. The call was made, reviewed and upheld. Tuitt was ejected and Pitt found new life.

The Panthers responded with a 10-play, 71-yard drive that ended in a three-yard TD pass from Savage to Devin Street to tie the game at 7.

Was Tuitt's ejection legit? Once Savage lowered his shoulder, the whole dynamic of the play changed. He didn't slide. He wasn't standing up. Tuitt lowered his shoulder, but first contact came helmet-to-helmet.

No mitigating circumstances affected the ruling. Tuitt was forced to miss the final three quarters, but he will be eligible for the BYU game Nov. 23.

Tuitt's absence made for some interesting personnel alignments. On one passing situation, inside linebacker Carlo Calabrese lined up at nose guard.

Pitt fans are tough on their Panthers. With 2:27 left in the second quarter and the Irish up 14-7, Matt Yoklic punted into the end zone from the Notre Dame 39. The crowd booed.

Usually it takes a lot for the punter to get booed.

It didn't take long for Kelly to be faced with an interesting decision. On its second possession of the game, Notre Dame got the ball to the Pitt 38 at fourth-and-three. Punt? Go for it? Field goal? A field goal, from 55 yards, would have been the longest in the history of Heinz Field.

Kelly turned to Kyle Brindza for a field goal try. It fell well short.

On Pitt's ensuing drive, which started on the 38, the Irish defense forced a three-and-out, so the decision wasn't nearly as critical as it could have been.

The next time around, faced with fourth-and-four from the 34, Brindza trotted onto the field, then returned to the sidelines. Rees hit tight end Ben Koyack with a 10-yard first-down pass. Two plays later, the Irish scored their first points on a 10-yard pass from Rees to DaVaris Daniels.

Fool me once ...

Three terrible mistakes. Shame on them.

Notre Dame defensive lineman Louis Nix III (1) pressures Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage (7) during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER