NOTRE DAME — Mike Golic Jr. turned to a teammate as he jogged away from a Notre Dame crowd that was breathing a collective sigh of relief.
“We just don’t know how to win big, do we?” the Irish offensive lineman said, bemused.
In fact, Notre Dame almost didn’t remember how to win at all, but the Irish outlasted Pitt 29-26 in triple overtime Saturday evening.
A week after a heroic upset win on the road against Oklahoma, the No. 4 Irish (9-0) were poised to kiss their national championship dreams goodbye at the hands of Pitt (4-5).
The Panthers spent three quarters building toward the massive upset and led by 14 points heading into the fourth quarter. Notre Dame had one quarter to salvage their undefeated season, and the Irish took all 15 minutes — plus three overtimes — to do it.
Early in the fourth quarter, quarterback Everett Golson, who had been pulled in the second quarter and reappeared midway through the third quarter, led the Irish on a 71-yard drive that ended in an 11-yard touchdown pass to TJ Jones.
The Irish forced a Pitt punt on the ensuing series, and Golson started the long 98-yard climb back up the field for the tying score. He got 91 yards before Pitt safety K’waun Williams picked him off in the end zone.
With 3:30 left on the game clock and down by eight points, Notre Dame’s window for a comeback had all but closed. But the crack was just big enough for the Irish to squeeze through.
First, the defense held Pitt to a 56-second possession that ended in another punt. Then Golson bounced back from his interception to find receiver DaVaris Daniels 45 yards down field and Theo Riddick in the end zone on the next play. Golson then took in the 2-point conversion himself to send the game into overtime.
After trading field goals in the first overtime, a goal line fumble by Cierre Wood and a miraculous missed 33-yard field goal attempt by Pitt’s Kyle Harper in the second overtime and 1-yard touchdown dive by Golson in the third overtime, Notre Dame emerged shaken but undefeated.
“I told them that they have to understand that everybody they play against will play their absolute best,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of his team. “Next week (Boston College) will play out of their minds against us. So will Wake Forest.
“They can’t just highlight certain teams on their schedule. I think that’s a lesson learned for our football team.”
Despite trailing for most of the contest, Notre Dame led Pitt in passing yards, rushing yards and time of possession throughout the game. The Irish opened with 6.5- and 9.5-minute drives but could only manage a pair of field goals out of both series. They didn’t score again until the fourth quarter.
“We’ve got to finish,” tailback Theo Riddick said of the team’s red zone offense. “We have to finish. That’s something we have to improve on quickly. I think it’s very, very crucial for this offense in terms of our growth.”
A week after holding Oklahoma to 15 total rushing yards, Notre Dame allowed Pitt tailback Ray Graham to break away on 55- and 48-yard runs. Graham finished with five 10+ yard gains, 172 total yards, one touchdown and a 7.2 yard per carry average.
“We missed tackles uncharacteristically,” Kelly said. “(Graham’s) a great back too. Certainly I thought he ran extremely well. We tackled subpar for us in terms of our defense...But they found a way to shut them down in the second half, and that is the key.”
So uncharacteristic was Notre Dame’s first-half defense that linebacker Manti Te’o went into halftime with no tackles, no pass-breakups and no quarterback hurries.
Te’o finished with seven tackles (one for a loss), a sack and a pass-breakup, but fellow linebackers Dan Fox and Prince Shembo led the Irish with nine and eight tackles each.
After giving up Graham’s rushing yards and allowing Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri to throw for 14-20 for 145 yards and a touchdown after three quarters, the Irish held Sunseri to 5-9 for 19 yards in the final quarter and all three overtimes.
“They out-executed us,” Pitt head coach Paul Chryst said of Notre Dame’s defense. “I thought we didn’t get it done, and they did.”
Golson finished 23-42 for 227 yards, two passing touchdowns and an interception and 15 carries for 74 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown. Riddick led Notre Dame tailbacks with 85 rushing yards on 22 carries. Daniels pulled down seven receptions for 86 yards.
Like Golic noted, Notre Dame may not know how to win big at home. But the Irish know how to win dramatically.