At the start of their game against Pittsburgh, Notre Dame seemingly had the Panthers by the tail. But as halftime neared under an ominous November sky, the Panthers found a way to grip the Irish in their claws.
For the first half, the Notre Dame of weeks past was nowhere to be found. Absent were the blue-and-gold fighters who steamrolled sturdy Sooners and crushed the courageous Cardinal.
Trailing Pittsburgh 6 to 10, Coach Brian Kelly’s lads looked lost — as did the game.
So late in the second quarter trotted Tommy Rees, greeted by a reticent rasp from the stadium and a beastly growl from the Pittsburgh defense. At first, vintage Rees: a concussive staccato of passes to T.J. Jones and DaVaris Daniels. And yet, here also was vintage Rees: two incomplete passes and a deferral to punter Ben Turk.
Pitt’s next drive stalled. When Rees wound up again, he dispatched a first-class parcel directly to linebacker Eric Williams.
Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri then delivered a crushing strike to J.P. Holtz, who rumbled his way through defenders for a 43-yard gain. Sunseri’s next pass to Holtz was another dagger through the defense: the Panthers scored a touchdown to go ahead by 11.
When Everett Golson once more took the field, again his offense had to yield. Doubt – the herald of defeat – stunned Notre Dame supporters. They wondered: in what distant skies burnt once-fiery Irish eyes?
Pitt running back Ray Graham exploded through defenders for 48 yards. Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o exhorted his men back into the breach. And though the Irish defense held, a Pittsburgh field goal tolled the funeral bell for season’s dreams.
Or did it?
When Golson returned — What shoulder! What art! — he warmed the cheering Irish hearts.
With roguish running down the field, Golson defied the almost certain loss looming overhead. On fourth and four the desperation drive nearly collapsed but for a Pittsburgh interference penalty. Golson rocketed a crossfield strike to Jones, who pinballed his way behind brilliant blocking for a touchdown. Though Kyle Brindza missed the extra point, hope dawned on Notre Dame.
The Panthers gathered for another drive. But Notre Dame’s daring defenders swamped Graham. Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt sacked Sunseri and forced a Panther punt.
Golson began the long hike northward from his own 2 yard line. By the strength of his arm and the winged feet of Mercury, the talented first-year starter drove the Irish to the Pittsburgh 7. But just as the Irish threatened to score, Golson threw an imprudent pass intercepted by K’Waun Williams that vacuumed the air from Notre Dame Stadium.
With only four minutes left, Pittsburgh could secure victory. But Sunseri’s fumble and feisty Irish defense returned the ball to Golson at midfield.
Coach Kelly’s last chancers gathered for a cardiac comeback. Golson nimbly dodged defenders and launched an astonishing pass downfield to Daniels, who scooted around his defender for a spectacular catch. Golson then skirted a sack and rifled a pass to Theo Riddick, who scored a touchdown before careening into the marching band’s xylophones. And on a crucial two-point play to keep the dream alive, Golson concocted a Houdini escape and dashed across the goal line to tie the contest.
Seemingly exhausted of heroics, both offenses waived the game into overtime. Notre Dame won the toss and Te’o proudly dared the Panthers to score first, but both teams managed field goals en route to a second overtime.
Notre Dame nearly scored a redemptive touchdown on their next possession. But as Cierre Wood cartwheeled into the end zone, the pigskin came loose from his arms and bounced into those of Pitt’s Jarred Holley. Even though Notre Dame refused Pitt another first down, the Panthers merely needed a field goal to silence the echoes.
As for the kick, Sunday school teachers will never again want for an example of divine intervention. For what else could have propelled Kevin Harper’s kick just a cherub’s breath outside the upright?
The shivering crowds rejoiced, their hearts warmed by the miraculous. The Fighting Irish returned to the gridiron for a chance to prove the miracle’s worth. (Angels may stand sentinel over Notre Dame Stadium’s sidelines, but no seraph has yet thrown a touchdown pass.)
Notre Dame’s defenders mustered a riveting stand that equaled their season’s best. Mighty Louis Nix III, who was bedridden with illness this week, roared through the line and hit Sunseri for the defense’s fifth sack of the day. Harper redeemed himself with a 44-yard field goal to put Pitt ahead once more.
But when Golson rallied the blue-and-gold for one last crusade, the Irish livewire sparked alight. Golson to Riddick for 11 yards. Riddick for three, Riddick for four, Golson with an astounding six-yard dash that the Pitt defense thwarted just short of the goal.
Then, with one monumental heave, Notre Dame surged together as one and compelled Golson across the goal line, straight and true. An electric cheer burst through the chilly air. Touchdown Notre Dame! A heart attack on sight, an ugly win: 29-26.
At 9-0, Notre Dame truly has the tiger by the tail. They may not survive another mistake-marred game like this. But the Fighting Irish kept a miracle season in their sights with heroics from a resolute defense and dynamic Golson, who runs and guns like a firecracker.
And if those heroics — and divine intervention — continue, this Fighting Irish team just may climb into a pantheon of legend.