Notre Dame football can’t help but be polarizing. College football does this to normal, rational people. Notre Dame football makes it worse.
In the immediate aftermath of Notre Dame’s thrilling 29-26 win in triple overtime over Pittsburgh, public commentary ran the full spectrum, from “overrated” to “overachieving”. Mark May saw blood; Lou Holtz saw guts and glory. Regardless, the victory by the Irish was a less-than-impressive follow-up to a dominant 17-point road win over Oklahoma. But every contender must endure a few scares, and Notre Dame remains very much in the thick of the BCS conversation.
With inexperience in key spots, mainly the quarterback and secondary positions, Notre Dame has proven that it can be prone to a let-down or look-ahead type of game -- the Irish nearly lost two weeks ago to a below-average BYU squad. Saturday’s contest against Pitt had all the makings of a similar situation. In reality, the story is not that the Irish found themselves so close to defeat, but rather that they found another way, however improbable, to survive and advance.
It took Notre Dame three quarters to realize it was losing to Pitt. After two long, time-consuming drives to open the game, the Irish offense crawled into a conservative shell and let the Panthers claw their way to a 20-6 lead headed into the fourth quarter. Paul Chryst’s game plan for Pitt proved effective, leaning heavily on Ray Graham’s legs to set up better passing situations for Tino Sunseri.
But, despite Pitt’s success throughout most of the game, Notre Dame came to its senses and stormed back behind the arm and legs of Everett Golson. Golson, who had been temporarily benched in favor of Tommy Rees, used his athleticism to buy time in the pocket and find open receivers. The Irish pulled to within one score early in the fourth quarter, making it a 20-12 game.
Pitt also showed that it is not used to playing with a lead. Chryst’s game plan, which had been wildly successful for the majority of the game, shifted away from the calculated aggressiveness that had worked so well for the previous 45 minutes. The Panthers played the entire fourth quarter trying not to lose, and, in the end, did just that.
Ultimately, Notre Dame has Golson to thank for Saturday’s win. A late, gutsy drive and two-point conversion would not have happened if not for Golson’s crafty footwork and poise under pressure. His 227 passing yards were key, but his 74 yards on the ground were clutch. A late TD pass to Theo Riddick and scrambling two-point conversion made the game a 20-20 tie and sent the contest to overtime.
After trading field goals and possessions, Golson again put the Irish on his back and kept his team undefeated with a game-winning touchdown in triple overtime, sealing the victory at 29-26.
In the end, we can conclude that Notre Dame is far from infallible and its defense can be tamed with the right game plan. But we also learned that the Irish aren’t winning with smoke and mirrors, and that this team’s experience in close football games seems to be helping its confidence -- confidence that will be put to the ultimate test as only three games stand in the way of a perfect 12-0 season.