SOUTH BEND — Searching for its third upset win over an unbeaten top-five team in as many years, the Pitt football team came up just short in South Bend on Saturday.
The No. 5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (7-0) withstood all they could handle from an inspired Pitt bunch, but in the end, the Panthers (3-4, 2-1 ACC) couldn’t make a play when they needed it most to pull off another shocking upset and cement their status as “giant killers.” After trailing for three-and-a-half quarters, Notre Dame took its first lead with 5:43 remaining on a 35-yard touchdown strike from quarterback Ian Book to wide receiver Miles Boykin. The Fighting Irish defense did its part from there to stymie the Panthers’ offense and clinch a 19-14 victory.
If Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi put together a game script outlining how he hoped the first drive of the game would play out, it’s safe to say he couldn’t have drawn it up any better than what transpired on the field. But it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish, and that final drive is the one he’d like to have back.
After forcing Notre Dame to punt on its first possession, Pitt seemed destined to kick the ball right back to the Fighting Irish. Then, something funny happened: Notre Dame jumped offside before the punt, giving the Panthers a new set of downs. Pitt then marched down the field to the tune of a 17-play, 88-yard touchdown drive, capped off by a 9-yard scamper out of the Wildcat formation by Qadree Ollison.
The scoring drive not only gave the Panthers an early 7-0 lead, it also took nearly 10 minutes off the clock and seemed to suck all the energy out of both the fans in the stadium and the players on the Fighting Irish sideline.
Book tried to inject some life back into Notre Dame’s offense with a 22-yard scramble on third-and-long. But he tried to do too much on the next play, throwing an ill-advised pass when he may have been able to run for the first down. Jason Pinnock appeared to read Book’s eyes and leave his man to make the interception.
Pitt couldn’t capitalize on the momentum on offense, though, as the Fighting Irish defense forced three straight three-and-outs. In the meantime, a critical roughing-the-passer penalty by Dewayne Hendrix helped set up a 22-yard field goal to get Notre Dame on the board. One more Justin Yoon field goal just before the half cut the Panthers’ lead to 7-6 at the break.
Needing a decent drive to regain the momentum coming out of halftime, Maurice Ffrench did Pitt one better, taking the opening kick of the second half 99 yards to the house and sending the Pitt sideline into a frenzy.
The Fighting Irish then promptly drove the length of the field, only for Jaylen Twyman to hit Book’s arm as he threw, forcing an errant pass that turned into another interception by the Panthers deep in their own territory. This time it was Jazzee Stocker who came away with the pick and returned it to Pitt’s 22-yard line.
The Panthers put together two straight solid drives after the interception, but came away empty both times after Alex Kessman missed a 47-yard field goal wide left and a 36-yarder wide right. That’s when Book and Boykin took over, as their 35-yard connection put Notre Dame in front for good.
Pitt had one last chance to win it after stopping the Fighting Irish on fourth down, but wide receiver Tre Tipton couldn’t quite pull down Kenny Pickett’s desperation heave inbounds on fourth-and-28.