Notre Dame talked about not being able to overlook any team in the days leading up to its home game over Pittsburgh.
And Saturday’s 29-26 survival in triple overtime drove home those words for the No. 4 Irish as they improved to 9-0 over the first time since 1993.
“Basically, you know every team that plays Notre Dame is going to come out and play their hardest, and we need to realize that whoever we are playing, we need to play our A game,” defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said. “I don’t know if we would have won this last year. I don’t want to say much has changed, but we have guys who battle.”
Notre Dame avoided the fate of the 2002 team, which started 8-0 only to be upset by Boston College 14-7 in the ninth game of that season.
And while it wasn’t the dominate victory everyone wanted for the Irish, who entered the week at No. 3 in the BCS standings, it was a win the team would take.
“It was ugly at times and beautiful at times, and that is college football,” linebacker Manti Te’o said. “I’m just glad the outcome favored us.”
It didn’t look like it was going to end in Notre Dame’s favor after three quarters Saturday.
Pitt (4-4) forced the Irish to settle for field goals after drives of 60 and 89 yards in the first half, and the Panthers took a 10-6 lead into halftime thanks to a Kevin Harper 39-yard field goal and a 16-yard touchdown run by Ray Graham, who finished with 172 rushing yards.
The deficit and inability to score touchdowns had coach Brian Kelly juggling his quarterbacks, taking out starter Everett Golson late in the second quarter in favor of Tommy Rees.
But unlike in the past – Golson had been replaced by Rees in home starts against Purdue (because of Rees’ ability to run the 2-minute offense better at the time), Michigan (because of Golson’s poor first half performance) and Stanford (because Golson suffered a concussion) – Golson got a chance at redemption.
Rees, who completed 6 of 11 passes for 64 yards, threw an interception with 6:37 to play in the third quarter that Pitt turned into a 9-yard touchdown catch by tight end J.P. Holtz for a 17-6 lead with 5:52 to play in the quarter.
That sent Golson back in for Rees, and the sophomore started to engineer a comeback after the Panthers tact on a field goal with 58 seconds to play in the third for a 20-6 lead.
Golson led an 11-play, 71-yard scoring drive that spanned the third and fourth quarters and ended with an 11-yard TD catch by TJ Jones.
But the Irish missed the extra point and trailed 20-12 with 13:40 to play.
Then things got even bleaker with 3:59 to play when Golson had a pass picked off in the end zone, and the Irish’s comeback bid appeared dead.
But the defense forced Pitt to punt after three plays, and Golson then went to work at the 50.
The sophomore danced around on the first snap after the punt until DaVaris Daniels finally gave him a down field target, and he unleashed a 45-yard pass that Daniels came back for and caught on the 5.
Golson then looked like he was going to try to score on a 5-yard run on the next play only to find Theo Riddick for a TD pass. Finally, Golson tied the game at 20 with 2:11 to play when he ran in for the 2-point conversion.
“We would have liked to have thrown it a long time earlier than that when he was wide open,” coach Brian Kelly said of the pass to Daniels that set up the game-tying TD. “He didn’t. He stayed alive, and he got the ball down the field. I mean, we’re coming to understand that we’re not perfect, as you know. But the kid competes, and he’s got a strong arm. Put the ball in a good position, DD made a nice play on the ball and got us an opportunity to put some points on the board.”
In overtime, Notre Dame and Pitt exchanged field goals in the first session.
In the second overtime, the Irish missed their chance to score when running back Cierre Wood lost the ball while diving into the end zone. The play was ruled a fumble giving the Panthers a chance to finish the game with the scored tied at 23.
But Harper’s 33-yard field-goal attempt missed wide right, and even after he made a 44-yarder in the third overtime, it left the door open for Notre Dame to win.
Golson went threw that door on a 1-yard plunge that sealed the victory and redemption for Golson, who finished with 227 passing yards with two touchdowns and an interception and 74 rushing yards.
“Everybody was celebrating and (centerBraxtonCave) came up to me (saying), ‘Good job, good job.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, we did it!’ Maybe three seconds later I (said), ‘All right now, get me out of here. I have to get out.’ There was a whole bunch of people swarming,” Golson said of scoring the winning touchdown. “I’m just excited that our team really came together and pulled off this win.”