SOUTH BEND — For almost 55 minutes on Saturday, an overwhelming sense of deja vu crept its way inside the hallowed grounds of Notre Dame Stadium.
It was happening again.
The unranked Pitt Panthers, the team you least want to see walking off the bus and into your stadium if you’re a national title contender, nearly pulled off the most monumental upset of the college football season for the third year in a row. This time, though, the No. 5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish held strong and kept their perfect season alive with a 19-14 come-from-behind victory.
“I feel bad for our kids in that locker room,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “They fought their tails off, played hard … just disappointing for them. Not the way you want it to go.”
The game featured only three offensive touchdowns, but the only time Pitt’s offense found the end zone was on its opening 17-play, 88-yard scoring drive. Other than that, the Panthers’ only points came from Maurice Ffrench’s 99-yard kick return touchdown to open the second half.
Somehow, against a Notre Dame team coming off back-to-back blowouts over ranked opponents Stanford and Virginia Tech, those two touchdowns were almost enough for Pitt to pull off the upset. But two missed field goals by Alex Kessman and a 35-yard scoring strike from Ian Book to Miles Boykin proved to be the difference, as the Fighting Irish executed a flawless 80-yard touchdown drive with less than six minutes left.
“Our guys are never going to quit,” Narduzzi said. “That’s a good football team, give them some credit. I’m just disappointed.”
OFFENSE DISAPPEARS IN SECOND HALF AGAIN
Another recurring narrative that Pitt can’t seem to shake is its propensity to disappear on offense in the second half of games.
After putting up only 17 second-half points in its first five games of the season combined, the Panthers appeared to turn things around last week by scoring 17 points in the second half and seven more in overtime to seal a 44-37 win against Syracuse.
On Saturday, though, Pitt’s offensive woes returned at the worst possible time. The Panthers put together arguably their best offensive drive of the season to open the game, but could only settle for two failed field goal attempts in the second half — typically not enough to beat one of the best teams in the country.
“They’re the No. 5 team in the country for a reason. They can play,” quarterback Kenny Pickett said. “They’ve got some good dudes. They just play sound football. Nothing crazy schematically, but they do their job, every single one of them.”
Pickett credited Notre Dame’s stout front seven for creating havoc late in the game when Pitt needed to drive the length of the field for a touchdown to win the game.
“When you get into obvious passing downs, they can pin their ears back a little bit and come after you,” Pickett said. “They have some really athletic dudes up front on the D-Line. I think we did a really good job of slowing them down all game, but when you get late in the game and they know the pass is coming, they’re going to pin their ears back and get after you a little bit. So you really tip your cap there to some of those guys up front.”
KESSMAN CRASHES BACK TO EARTH
In last week’s win against Syracuse, Kessman couldn’t miss — no matter the distance. His teammates mobbed him after his school-record 54- and 55-yard field goals easily cleared the uprights, and his biggest kick of all may have been the 45-yarder to send the game to overtime.
In South Bend on Saturday, though, Kessman realized firsthand how quickly a kicker’s fortunes can change.
First, Kessman missed a 47-yard attempt wide to the left that could have given the Panthers a 17-6 lead with five minutes left in the third quarter. It’s a forgivable miss for any college kicker, even one who made three from 45-yards-plus inside the unfriendly confines of Heinz Field just one week earlier.
But then, Kessman shanked a 36-yard attempt wide right that would have made it a 17-12 game early in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame seized the momentum from there, and Pitt never made it back into scoring range.
Still, Pickett refused to place the blame on Kessman for the loss, instead shouldering the bulk of it for failing to lead the offense into the end zone.
“If we don’t leave any of those drives to field goals and go in and punch it in ourselves, it’s a whole different story,” Pickett said. “That’s on the offense. We have to go down there and score and not leave it up to three. We have to go do it ourselves.”
DEFENSE SHINES WITHOUT WIRGINIS
The Panthers received a major blow to their defense during the week when they lost team captain and starting middle linebacker Quintin Wirginis to a season-ending injury. A major question coming into the game was how the defensive unit would make up for his absence.
Rather than fold under the adversity, Pitt came out and played its best defensive game of the season, holding the Fighting Irish under 20 points for the first time all year.
“Our goal always is to hold an offense under 20 points, but once you go back and watch that film, we’re going to see just a few plays, a handful of plays, where if we had just made one more step or filled the hole right, they might not have scored at all the whole game,” defensive end Rashad Weaver said.
While the team certainly missed Wirginis’ presence as a team leader and playmaker, Elias Reynolds stepped into Wirginis’ role and made sure the Panthers didn’t miss a beat. If anything, they looked more inspired than ever after promising to dedicate the rest of the season to Wirginis.
“[Wirginis] is a great player, he knows that defense better than anyone and he knows what’s going to happen before plays are even snapped, but on defense we have a guy, [Reynolds] stepped up and I thought he played a great game for his first start,” Weaver said. “He was relaxed and calm, which is what you want out of somebody making checks.”
Despite the solid all-around performance by the bunch and putting up big numbers himself with two sacks for a combined loss of 24 yards, Weaver left the field wishing he had done more.
“You can say you played good, but especially when you’re the one out on that field, you’re always going to know there’s plays where you could have made a difference in the game, especially when it’s that close.”
PICKETT NOT MAKING ENOUGH PLAYS
After putting up a pedestrian 137 yards passing with one touchdown and two turnovers in Pitt’s 44-37 win against Syracuse last week, Pickett wasn’t much better against Notre Dame. The sophomore signal caller finished 19-for-28 with just 126 yards passing, though he did face a ton of pressure from the Fighting Irish defensive line.
More than halfway through the season, Pickett has thrown for just 1,006 yards and six touchdowns with five interceptions. He did flash his potential on a creative shovel pass to Darrin Hall to pick up a key first down on third-and-long, but those plays have been few and far between this season and the Panthers’ downfield passing game has been nonexistent.
Whether it’s the play-calling not allowing Pickett to throw deep, Pitt’s receivers failing to get separation downfield, Pickett simply not finding them and giving them a chance, or a combination of all three — something has to change if the Panthers want to be competitive down the stretch as they finish out their ACC schedule.
Despite sporting a sub-.500 record thanks to the toughest non-conference schedule in the nation, Pitt is still in decent position inside the ACC Coastal Division with a 2-1 record and with arguably its three toughest opponents already out of the way. But it’s going to be tough for the Panthers to keep up with the conference’s high-octane offenses if the passing game can’t get it going in a hurry.
Pitt found some moderate success on the ground against Notre Dame, although nowhere close to its usual standards. In today’s game, you’re not going to come away with too many wins running the ball 16 times in a row like the Panthers did last week against Syracuse. That means they need Pickett to find a way to rekindle the magic he showed late last season to have any hope of making a run at a division title and spot in the ACC Championship.
“We’re capable of a lot more,” Pickett said. “Twice leaving it up to three points, you’re not going to win. You have to make those touchdowns. At least one of those has got to be a touchdown. It’s a totally different game. We had them on the ropes, and that would have been a knockout punch if we could have punched one of those in.”
SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE
Everyone remembers the Panthers’ 24-14 win over No. 2 Miami to close out the season last year at Heinz Field, as well as Pitt’s 43-42 stunner at No. 2 Clemson in 2016. But going back a little further, history shows that even when the seemingly overmatched Panthers don’t pull off the upset, they still have a tendency to give top-10 opponents all they can handle.
In 2008, unranked Pitt went on the road and dealt No. 10 South Florida its first loss of the season, 26-21. The year before that, the Panthers crushed rival West Virginia’s dreams of playing for the BCS title with a 13-9 upset in Morgantown against the No. 2 Mountaineers. Going back even further, Pitt knocked off top-five Virginia Tech teams in both 2002 and 2003.
Even this series has had its share of nail-biting finishes in the past 15 years. In 2012, No. 4 Notre Dame eked out a 29-26 win in triple-overtime thanks to a missed 33-yard field goal that would have won the game for the Panthers. In 2008, Pitt came out on top in four overtimes, 36-33, though both teams came into that game unranked. And in 2004, the unranked Panthers defeated No. 24 Notre Dame, 41-38, thanks to five touchdown passes from Tyler Palko.
Saturday’s game was just another example of an unheralded Panthers bunch threatening to derail the title hopes of a national powerhouse — and it also just so happened to be yet another chapter in the storied Pitt-Notre Dame series that always seems to come down to the wire.
“We went toe-to-toe with a top-five team, we’ve played two other top-10 teams and didn’t go toe-to-toe because we hurt ourselves, so we took a top-five team all the way to the wire, and for whatever reason, you guys can figure it out, we didn’t pull it out at the end,” Narduzzi said.