PITTSBURGH — For the first time all season, Notre Dame’s imposing defensive front walked into a game healthy and whole.
It showed for much of the first quarter against Pitt, as Sheldon Day and All-Americans Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix smothered any semblance of a Panther offense.
On the verge of another lock-down series, Tuitt surged forward to plug Pitt quarterback Tom Savage on a first-down scramble.
Their helmets grazed on the collision, drawing a targeting penalty on Tuitt and a controversial ejection from the game. Pitt, which had only gained 45 yards in the first quarter, took advantage of a stunned Irish defense and marched 63 yards for the tying touchdown.
Though the Irish would hold for rest of the first half, the Panthers eventually capitalized on Tuitt’s ejection and Notre Dame’s rapidly dwindling defensive depth.
Pitt (5-4) out-muscled No. 23 Notre Dame 28-21 at Heinz Field on Saturday, Nov. 9. Notre Dame falls to 7-3, effectively erasing its shot at a BCS bid in January.
The low-scoring slugfest gained steam in the second half. A game that saw 21 total points in a half saw another 21 in 90 seconds.
After Pitt tied the Irish late in the third quarter, Tommy Rees hit TJ Jones in stride for an 80-yard touchdown on the first play of the following drive. Pitt responded just over a minute later with a 63-yard bomb from Savage to Devin Street.
Pitt continued to agonize an Irish defense desperately throwing together a Picasso piece lineup. At one point, linebacker Carlo Calabrese lined up at nose guard.
When the defense needed a lifeline from its offense, Rees threw back-to-back interceptions with the game still tied at 21. Cam McDaniel and Amir Carlisle dropped screen passes, Jones fumbled the ball inside the Pitt 10. A week after running over Navy, Tarean Folston finished with four carries for 13 yards.
A team that survived games without Day and Nix couldn’t do the same without Tuitt.
Rees finished 18-of-38 for 318 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Jones led receivers with six grabs for 149 yards and one touchdown.
Pitt 28, Notre Dame 21
Notre Dame 7 7 7 0 — 21
Pitt 0 7 14 7 — 28
Notre Dame: DaVaris Daniels 10 pass from Tommy Rees; Kyle Brindza kick, 3:41. Drive: 9 plays, 83 yards, 3:29. Key play: Rees finds Ben Koyack for a 10-yard connection on fourth-and-four to move to the Pitt 10-yard line.
Score: Notre Dame 7, Pitt 0.
Pitt: Devin Street 3 pass from Tom Savage; Chris Blewitt kick, 10:20. Drive: 10 plays, 71 yards, 5:14. Key play: Stephon Tuitt ejected after a helmet-to-helmet targeting penalty, giving Pitt a boost down the field.
Score: Notre Dame 7, Pitt 7.
Notre Dame: TJ Jones 1 run; Brindza kick, 6:34. Drive: 4 plays, 39 yards, 1:05. Key play: Koyack grabs a 39-yard pass from Rees, setting Notre Dame up at the Pitt half-yard line.
Score: Notre Dame 14, Pitt 7.
Pitt: James Conner 2 run; Blewitt kick, 3:47. Drive: 13 plays, 59 yards, 6:18. Key play: Bennett Jackson pass interference penalty on fourth-and-five brought Pitt to the Notre Dame 16.
Score: Notre Dame 14, Pitt 14.
Notre Dame: Jones 80 pass from Rees; Brindza kick, 3:29. Drive: 1 play, 80 yards, 0:18.
Score: Notre Dame 21, Pitt 14.
Pitt: Street 63 pass from Savage; Blewitt kick, 2:12. Drive: 3 plays, 72 yards, 1:17. Key play: Isaac Bennett rushes six yards for a first down.
Score: Notre Dame 21, Pitt 21.
Pitt: Conner 1 run; Blewitt kick, 9:36. Drive: 2 plays, 5 yards, 0:50. Key play: Ray Vinopal intercepts Rees and runs the ball back 40 yards to the Notre Dame 5.
Final Score: Pitt 28, Notre Dame 21.