No. 5 Notre Dame labors, rallies, then survives underdog Pitt, 19-14

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — They danced. They blared music. They even watched LSU finishing off No. 2 Georgia on the locker room TVs as part of a postgame celebration that never hinted at the darkness No. 5 Notre Dame had been staring down most of the afternoon.

In a moment of unfiltered honesty, though, Irish wide receiver Miles Boykin found QB Ian Book and offered a poignant postgame suggestion.

“I told him ‘Winning is fun, but let’s not win like this again.’ ” Boykin revealed after the Irish labored, rallied and survived three-TD underdog Pittsburgh, 19-14, in college football Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

The beauty was not in how 2012-esque ND’s move to 7-0 for the first time in six seasons felt and looked statistically, but how Book pulled himself from a first-half regression to complement a defense that was simply dominant after an initial prolonged first-quarter backpedal.

It also beat the alternative, as No. 2 Georgia, No. 6 West Virginia, No. 7 Washington and No. 8 Penn State all went down on Saturday.

“There’s no point in freaking out when you have some time on the clock,” offered Book, who connected with Boykin for the go-ahead points, a 35-yard TD pass with 5:43 left in the game. “And we’ve been there before, so we didn’t want to make it a bigger deal than it was.”

Actually, this Notre Dame team had barely been there before. The only time the Irish had trailed all season was a brief 3-0, first-quarter deficit Sept. 22 at Wake Forest in Book’s first start of the season — an eventual 56-27 ND romp.

Once the Irish finally did move ahead, a terribly executed fake punt — with third-string Pitt QB Jeff George Jr. throwing a pass out of bounds — and a four-and-out, catalyzed by Khalid Kareem’s 14-yard sack of Kenny Pickett — allowed the Irish offense to bleed the final 98 seconds off the clock.

“The guy that was supposed to slip out of there tripped and fell,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said of fake punt attempt at the 3:34 mark of the fourth quarter from the Panthers 45-yard line. “That certainly wasn’t the game, I can tell you that.”

What was the game, at least while Pitt (3-4) was ahead, was the play of a Panther defense that lost for the season its most impactful player, senior middle linebacker Quintin Wirginis, earlier this week, came in 105th nationally in rush defense and 95th in total defense.

Even in the resurgent second half, the Irish only mustered 80 rushing yards on 38 carries, a season low total and a feeble 2.1 per-carry average. and only Michigan in the opener held Notre Dame to fewer total yards than Pitt allowed overall (344) on Saturday.

Book had skittish pocket presence in the first half. But while his completion percentage was high for the whole game, his 13-of-18 in the first half produced a benign 106 passing yards. He was sacked three times and threw one of his two picks as ND trailed at halftime 7-6.

In the second half, Book had some errors but not many — another pick and a slide on third and six that left him one yard short of a critical first down. But he was 13-of-14 for 158 yards and two TDs in the second half.

And after becoming the first ND quarterback since at least 1950 to complete at least 70 percent of his passes in a three-game stretch, he finished at 81.3 percent in game four. That’s the third-highest completion percentage for an Irish QB, attempting at least 25 passes, since at least 1996.

“This should have been maybe been 45 to 50 times throwing the football,” said ND coach Brian Kelly, whose Irish passed 32 times to the 38 running plays.

“It was that stark in terms of the pressure that they were putting on the running game today. and you know, we want to try to stay balanced. We want to try to stay true to who we are. Today they weren’t going to allow that to happen.”

Pitt rode a couple of special teams gaffes to all 14 of its points on Saturday. Safety Nicco Fertitta jumped offsides when Pitt was in punt formation from its own 29 on its first drive of the game. Given new life, the Panthers finished off a ball-hogging, 17-play, 88-yard drive that consumed 9:43 with a Qadree Ollison nine-yard run.

Then on the opening kickoff to start the second half, Pitt’s Maurice Ffrench broke loose for a 99-yard return for a TD to make it 14-6 Panthers. Kicker Jonathan Doerer, Fertitta and safety Alohi Gilman all had shots at Ffrench once he broke into the open field.

Notre Dame’s initial answer was to drive down to the Pitt 24, where Book promptly threw his second interception of the day,

But the Irish defense took over — again and again. In fact, they did so following Pitt’s opening drive, allowing 154 total yards the rest of the way. The Irish played without starting cornerback Troy Pride Jr. (ankle), and freshman replacement TaRiq Bracy didn’t start, but he finished and finished strong.

Pitt special teams helped out with a pair of missed field goals.

Junior defensive end Julian Okwara had a monster effort for the Irish, with what is believed to be a school-record for QB hurries in a game, with seven. It’s a longtime recorded stat, but not one that received much diligence and consistency until the last decade.

He also had six tackles, including one for a three-yard loss, and a pass breakup.

“MVP,” Irish linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said. “He caused havoc in the backfield all the time.”

“He gets quarterbacks uncomfortable,” added Kelly, who awarded Okwara the game ball. “They move their feet. They change their launch point. Their eyes drop. Things just make them uncomfortable.

“I think the play that he made on third down, where he gets the back coming out of the backfield for a loss, tells more about his overall game. His ability to drop out of coverage and make a play like that on a running back, he’s a pretty special player.”

The Irish head into a bye week before embarking on a stretch of four road games in five weeks to finish the season. Up first is Navy (2-4) in a night game in San Diego. Kelly will let ND celebrate first, and doesn’t expect it to be a muted one.

“A lot of good things that we can take from it,” Kelly said of the 10th ND-Pitt game in the last 12 to be decided by single digits. “We obviously can’t play like this week in and week out and feel like we’re going to win every game we play.

“But you’re going to have some of these, and you’ve got to grow from them. I really like our football team. They will grow from this. They will learn from it and we’ll be better because of it.”

Notre Dame wide receiver Miles Boykin hauls in the game-winning touchdown pass from Ian Book against Pittsburgh.