Notre Dame football: Pitt’s picks sink Notre Dame
Defense wears down at finish
The adrenaline and emotional duct tape holding the injury-depleted Notre Dame defense together, and the long shot surge toward a BCS berth for that matter, fractured and splintered but never came unraveled Saturday night.
The Irish offense did those dishonors.
ND senior quarterback Tommy Rees slipped into a time warp in the fourth quarter, tossing two interceptions and committing an intentional grounding penalty, with no real urgency to throw the ball away, on the last Irish offensive drive.
The Pitt celebration of a 28-21 upset – after the Panthers’ triple-overtime near-miss in South Bend last season – commenced with 2:26 left in the game when Rees’ final two gasps resulted in incomplete passes and a turnover on downs at the Pitt 38.
The 24th-ranked Irish (7-3), after a bye week this week, finish the season with a home game against BYU on Nov. 23 and then a visit to surging Stanford on Nov. 30 to end the regular-season, a sweep of which wouldn’t conceivably give ND enough octane to crawl through a back door into the BCS, with a minimum standing of No. 14 as a requirement.
Instead Notre Dame will likely sift through the leftovers, the few bowls which won’t be able to get two participants through their contractual agreements with conferences due to a shortage of bowl-eligible teams in those leagues.
And Kelly must search for healthy defensive bodies and a way to coax Rees back to his earlier-season form against two teams he has struggled mightily against over his career.
“All losses are disappointing,” Kelly said, “but this was especially disappointing in the way we played and coached.”
Pitt (5-4), a 4½-point underdog, was on that list of teams that have given Rees nightmares too. Rees carried a career 101.58 pass-efficiency mark against the Panthers into the game – roughly 45 points lower than his rating this season.
He did throw for 318 yards and his two TD passes give him 58, two short of Jimmy Clausen’s 60 for second place on the Irish career list. But he was 18-of-39 unofficially, and his two interceptions helped a team that had been outscored 61-35 in the fourth quarter this season, rally for the victory.
“Poor execution,” Kelly remarked.
With ND holding a 14-7 halftime edge, Saturday night marked just the sixth time in the last 111 games since 2001 in which Kelly’s teams had a lead at intermission that they didn’t end up on the winning side of the ledger.
It also marked just the second November loss in 13 games at Notre Dame, ND’s second loss to an ACC team in 13 games since 2010, and truncated the second-longest winning streak in games decided by seven points or fewer at 10 games.
Junior safety Ray Vinopal, a transfer from Michigan, came up with both of Rees’ picks, neither of which looked like they had any chance to land in the hands of the intended receiver.
The first came with 14:04 left in regulation and the Irish four yards away from going up 28-21. Vinopal grabbed that one in the end zone.
The next helped the Panthers take the lead for good. That interception was launched for the Irish 24. Vinopal grabbed it at the 45-yard line and returned it to the Irish 5 with 10:26 left. He also had recovered a TJ Jones fumble in the first half as the Irish were driving for a score.
Pitt’s 230-pound freshman running back James Conner surged into the end zone from one yard out, to put Pitt ahead, 28-21 at the 9:36 mark of the fourth quarter. Perhaps a small consolation was that Pitt tight end J.P. Holtz, who publicly mocked the Irish and their coaches earlier in the week, was stopped on the 1-yard line following a reception.
A bizarre play early in the fourth quarter followed a Prince Shembo strip and sack of Rutgers quarterback Tom Savage. Two Irish players, defensive end Sheldon Day and linebacker Joe Schmidt, could have scooped up the fumble but thought it was an incomplete pass and started to jog back to the defensive huddle.
The Pitt players didn’t exactly lunge at the ball either. Ultimately, Pitt running back Isaac Bennett realized the whistle hadn’t blown and hopped on the ball. That gave Pitt fourth and long, but the alternative would have been a turnover.
All that transpired long after Irish standout defensive end Stephon Tuitt exited the game seven seconds into the second quarter after being flagged for the new targeting infraction.
Tuitt’s helmet met Savage’s when the QB lowered his shoulder just before the two collided. Kelly vehemently protested the call, which was upheld after a video review.
“Letter of the law,” Kelly said of the explanation he was given by the ACC officiating crew. “They were reciting the strict interpretation of the rule.”
Up until that point, the Irish enjoyed one of the few stretches this season when they had all three of their defensive line standouts relatively healthy and on the field together. Nose guard Louis Nix returned from a two-week bout with knee tendinitis and Sheldon Day played through a chronic ankle injury.
Once Tuitt left the game, because of the automatic ejection that comes with the targeting infraction, the Irish cobbled together all kinds of defensive fronts, including one that had linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Romeo Okwara lining up as defensive linemen.
“Tuitt not playing is not why we lost the game,” Kelly said.
The game started off dominated by the defenses, though Pitt’s defensive line All-America candidate Aaron Donald had a relatively silent night.
Irish kicker Kyle Brindza came up short on a 55-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter, which if converted would have been the longest in Heinz Field's 13-year history (pro or college).
ND finally broke the scoreless tie on its third possession, but needed to convert a fourth down to do it. On fourth-and-4 from the Pitt 34, Rees extended the play with this feet and finally found tight end Ben Koyack for a 10-yard gain. Redshirt freshman Ronnie Stanley did an outstanding job with Donald to give Rees time.
Two plays later Rees hit DaVaris Daniels with a 10-yard scoring pass for a 7-0 Irish lead with 3:41 left in the opening period.
It was 14-7 Irish when Pitt tied the game with 3:47 left in the third quarter on a two-yard push by Conner into the end zone. The Panthers converted a fourth-and-5 at the Irish 31 when Irish cornerback Bennett Jackson was flagged for pass interference on a pass thrown to the end zone.
The teams traded answers to that score. Jones scored on an 80-yard pass from Rees, giving him a TD reception in seven straight games, one off the school record.
Moments later, Savage hit Devin Street with a 63-yard scoring pass to tie the game at 21-21 at the 2:12 mark. Irish safety Matthias Farley missed a tackle at the Irish 39.
The Panthers finished strong to record just their fifth victory in the last 20 games of the series and just the third in the last 10 played in Pittsburgh.
“I think it comes down to, objectively, we just didn’t play well offensively,” Kelly said.
EHansen@SBTinfo.com 574-235-6112 Twitter: @hansenNDInsider