SOUTH BEND – Tommy Rees is expecting the same thing he has seen the last three seasons when No. 24 Notre Dame (7-2) kicks off against Pittsburgh (4-4) tonight – a close game.
It’s going to be a tough one, the senior quarterback said. Every year I’ve been here it’s been a hard-fought, close game, so we got to prepare to be ready to play for four quarters and we will need to grind one out.
Rees was involved in the last two close calls the Irish had against the Panthers.
He briefly replaced Everett Golson in last year’s 29-26 triple-overtime victory at Notre Dame Stadium, throwing for 64 yards before Golson returned after Rees threw an interception. He connected with former Irish and Bishop Dwenger standout Tyler Eifert for a 6-yard touchdown to seal a 15-12 win at Heinz Field in 2011.
Rees didn’t play as a freshman against Pittsburgh in 2010, but it was another close game with the Irish winning 23-17 at home.
The reason for the close games between the programs is simple for Rees to explain – the two teams are virtually identical.
You both play physical, Rees said. You both have tough players, competitive players. Any time you go against an opponent like that, that really prides itself on being physical, being able to run the ball, good defense, I think you are going to have those types of games.
The last five games between the Irish and the Panthers have been decided by six points or less with two going to multiple overtimes. Notre Dame lost to Pittsburgh 27-22 in 2009 and 36-33 in four overtimes in 2008.
Last year’s triple-overtime victory for the Irish may have been even more intense than the 2009 five-overtime loss.
Notre Dame was trying to improve to 9-0 when it played host to Pitt on Nov. 3, 2012, and the Irish trailed 23-6 entering the fourth quarter. Golson connected with receiver TJ Jones and former Irish running back Theo Riddick for touchdown passes in the final quarter to force overtime.
The teams exchanged field goals in the first overtime, and former Irish running back Cierre Wood fumbled in the end zone in the second overtime, giving the Panthers a chance to win.
But Pitt kicker Kevin Harper missed a 33-yard field goal, and the officials missed that Notre Dame cornerback Bennett Jackson and receiver Chris Brown, who both wear No. 2, were on the field at the same time to defend the field goal. The Irish should have been penalized for having two players with the same number on the field, and that would have given the Panthers a fresh set of downs instead of going into a third overtime.
Notre Dame then won after Pitt got a field goal and Golson scored on a 1-yard run.
I totally forgot about the fumble in the end zone there in overtime, left tackle Zack Martin said. I forgot how that happened, how they got a field goal without us scoring. I saw that play (Tuesday). We kind of got lucky there, stole one.