Pitt game nearly doomed Notre Dame’s title shot
Monday, January 7, 2013
MIAMI — Luck of the Irish.
For starters, it’s a misleading phrase, in that most historians would tell you Irish luck is not necessarily a good thing. No matter — No. 1 Notre Dame enjoyed its share of fortunate breaks on its way to the BCS title game, with perhaps the bulk of those coming during a wild, wacky, marathon game at home against Pittsburgh on Nov. 3.
Irish 29, Pitt 26, triple overtime.
If any of at least a half-dozen plays in that one went another way, Notre Dame would be watching No. 2 Alabama play someone else for the title tonight. But the Irish found a way in that game, finished the regular season unbeaten and are now one win from capturing the national championship.
“I’ve always been one of those that doesn’t really believe in luck,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “You kind of create your own luck by how you execute and how you perform. I think sometimes people think you’re lucky when you’re able to make significant plays at critical times in the games.”
Maybe, maybe not. Because on that day at Notre Dame Stadium, the Fighting Irish had luck in bunches.
There were plenty of things that went wrong for the Irish in that game, just a few of them including:
• A first-quarter play when a surefire touchdown was missed because an open receiver was never seen;
• A 43-yard field goal try at the end of the half going awry;
• Theo Riddick being ruled down just shy of the end zone, a possession where the Irish settled for a field goal;
• Everett Golson getting picked off in the end zone with 4 minutes left and Notre Dame still trailing;
• Cierre Wood fumbling the ball away an inch or two from the end zone on the opening possession of the second overtime.
And then came the moment, perhaps the quintessential moment of Notre Dame’s season to date.
Pitt kicker Kevin Harper lined up for what would have been a game-winning 33-yard field goal in that second OT, with the stadium still somewhat stunned over the play where Wood simply lost the ball.
A veritable chip-shot.
Make the kick, Pitt wins.
Along the Notre Dame sideline, barely any of the offensive players could look at the scene.
Snap was high, but got down. Harper struck the ball, which went end-over-end toward his target.
“It was so close,” offensive lineman Zack Martin said. “We heard their crowd up in the corner cheer, so we thought it was done.”
The Pitt crowd’s cheer was quickly drowned out, of course. The kick went past the right upright, a foot or two away from being enough to give Pitt the win. Harper missed, and that was just one of two breaks Notre Dame caught on that play. The other was that Bennett Jackson and Chris Brown — players who both wear No. 2 for Notre Dame — were on the field at the same time, meaning the Irish should have been penalized.
The infraction wasn’t noticed by the officials.
“A coaching mistake,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said.
Neither seemed to have an effect on the play ... but still, there’s that luck factor again.
“A lot of people say we were lucky,” Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert said. “But we missed a field goal, too, or we would never have been in overtime, and we also fumbled on the 1-yard line and threw an interception inside the 10. I think that was unlucky, if anything. And we showed a lot of heart in that game.”
Perhaps no one showed more than Golson, who made a series of big plays in the fourth quarter, one that began with Notre Dame trailing 20-6.
On a drive that was extended by a questionable pass-interference call on fourth down — more luck? — Golson found T.J. Jones for a touchdown that got the Irish within 20-12, after the point-after try was missed. And after the interception, Golson stayed composed, first connecting with Riddick for a 5-yard touchdown pass with 2:11 left, then coolly waiting for his chance to run the ball in for the 2-point conversion that tied the game.
“If I would have got down on myself or not believed, we wouldn’t be sitting here today,” Golson said. “So I think me, not riding that wave, and me just always believing that we were going to win and having that confidence has helped us get to this point right now.”
There wasn’t much need for more drama down the stretch of the season.
Notre Dame beat Boston College 21-6, easily topped Wake Forest 38-0 and punched its ticket to Miami by going on the road and beating USC 22-13 to finish the regular season with a perfect 12-0 record.
But now, more than two months later, the Pitt game still gets talked about — a lot.
“Pitt came in and gave us their best and luckily they missed the field goal and we went on and won,” Martin said. “Every team that goes undefeated during the season has situations or games like that, and that was ours.”
Luck of the Irish?
“People always wish you good luck,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said. “I always tell them, ‘Hey, we’ll take all the luck we can get.’”
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