SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Pittsburgh nearly derailed No. 4 Notre Dame's hopes for a national championship. Instead, the Panthers were left with a loss that is sure to sting for a while.
Ray Graham had a stellar performance, rushing for 172 yards on 24 carries and the Panthers had several chances to put the unbeaten Fighting Irish away, but just couldn't pull it off. Everett Golson scored on a quarterback sneak in the third overtime to give Notre Dame a 29-26 victory after Pitt squandered a 14-point lead.
"We had opportunities and we didn't take advantage of them enough," Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. "That's what this game comes down to."
The Panthers (4-6) went ahead 17-6 after Pitt linebacker Eric Williams intercepted Irish backup quarterback Tommy Rees at midfield. Tino Sunseri then threw a 43-yard pass to J.P. Holtz, then threw a 9-yard TD pass to Holtz. The Panthers made it 20-6 on a 21-yard field goal by Kevin Harper.
The Panthers were hoping to follow in the footsteps of the 2007 Pitt team, which was 4-7 when it won 13-9 at No. 2 West Virginia on Dec. 1 to knock the Mountaineers out of the national championship game. But this time they just couldn't find a way to hold on.
"A couple times I thought we had it sealed, but that's why you play to the last whistle. You never know what's going to happen," Pitt linebacker Joe Trebitz said.
Pitt appeared to have the game all but clinched when cornerback K'Waun Williams intercepted a pass by Golson in the end zone. But the Irish defense held, and Golson completed a 45-yard pass to DaVaris Daniels at the Pitt 5. Golson then threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Theo Riddick and ran in for the two-point conversion to tie the game to force the overtime.
The Panthers had a chance to win the game in the second overtime when Irish running back Cierre Wood fumbled as he attempted to dive into the end zone Pitt safety Jarred Holley recovered. Kevin Harper could have won the game, but he missed a 33-yard field goal wide right following Wood's fumble.
"We missed a field goal, that's why we lost the game," Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri said. "It came down to a special teams play, we didn't make the play. Give credit to Notre Dame for being able to finish it off."
All five Notre Dame home games this season have been decided by a touchdown or less, while the four games away from Notre Dame have been decided by an average margin of 28 points.
Kelly had urged his team to play better at home, but they continued to make mistakes. He told the Irish they had to play better against Boston College, Wake Forest and Southern California.
"I told them that they have to understand that everybody they play against will play their absolute best. Next week BC will play out of their minds against us. Wake Forest will. They can't just highlight certain teams on their schedule because they will play their best," he said. "I think that's a lesson learned."
Chryst, though, said all the Panthers shared in the loss, pointing out the Panthers were 1 of 14 on third down conversions while the Irish were 10 of 20.
"I think that you can take a look at all of our phases, all three phases we could have done something more to make that one more play and give you a chance," he said.
It was the best all-around game for a wildly inconsistent Pitt team that lost to Youngstown State and Syracuse, but beat Virginia Tech.
"All we have to do is come in every week and play like this and it will be pretty hard to beat us," cornerback Lafayette Pitts said. "We can't play to our competition. We have to play like this every week."