In case you missed Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh on Saturday, here is a quick recap of what unfolded in South Bend:
Fresh off an emotionally charged win at Oklahoma, Notre Dame entered its match up with the Panthers sitting at 8-0, ranked 3rd in the BCS and right in the thick of the National Title hunt. As Cierre Wood walked into the endzone, in the waning moments of ND’s 30-13 victory in Norman, Brent Musburger put it best, “let me be clear, Notre Dame is relevant again”. Pittsburgh, despite showing glimpses of promise under first year head coach Paul Chryst, brought a pedestrian record of 4-4 into Saturday’s match up with the Irish. All things considered, Notre Dame seemed primed for a blowout win, but as a wise man once said- that’s why you play the game.
Late in the 2nd quarter, with Notre Dame trailing 10-6 and starting quarterback Everett Golson struggling to move the ball, Brian Kelly called on backup Tommy Rees to spark the Irish offense. Rees completed four consecutive passes, but when Kyle Brindza missed a 43 yard field to end the 1st half, Notre Dame limped into halftime still trailing the Panthers by 4.
After the teams traded punts to begin the 2nd half, Tommy Rees was intercepted by Eric Williams at the Pitt 44 yard line- the Panthers capitalized on Rees’ error by engineering a 52 yard drive, capped off by a 16 yard Ray Graham touchdown run. Pitt 17 ND 6.
Everett Golson re-entered the game, but failed to convert a first down as the Irish were forced to punt to ball back to the Panthers with 3:23 remaining in the 3rd quarter. Pitt then added a field goal to take a 20-6 lead into the 4th quarter.
Golson threw an 11-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter, but after Brindza missed the PAT, Notre Dame still trailed 20-12.
Pittsburgh’s offense continued to sputter, punting the ball back to the Irish with 9:57 remaining. The Irish marched 91 yards in 15 plays, but when K'Waun Williams intercepted a Golson pass in the end zone, Notre Dame’s perfect season was suddenly in serious jeopardy.
In desperate need of a stop, the Irish defense answered the bell as it has all season long, giving the ball back to ND’s offense with 3 minutes remaining and still trailing by 8. Golson went to work, completing a 45-yard pass to DaVaris Daniels to the Pitt 5 yard line. On the next play, Golson threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Theo Riddick. After Golson ran in the two-point conversion, Notre Dame had erased a 2 touchdown, 4th quarter, deficit to force a 20-20 tie and send the game into overtime.
Notre Dame won the toss and elected to start on defense. After the teams traded field goals in the first overtime, disaster struck- Pitt’s Jarred Holley (who is a product of the Lehigh Valley) recovered a Cierre Wood fumble on the Panther’s goal line. Pitt took over possession, needing only a field goal to win. Ray Graham ran three times, to the Irish 16, setting up a 33-yard field goal attempt. The game, the perfect season and the dream of a National Championship all rested on the foot of Pitt’s place kicker, Kevin Harper.
As the play began to unfold, everything seemed to happen in slow motion- good snap, good hold, the kick...NO GOOD!!! The prayers of 80,000 Irish fans had been answered- Harper had missed wide right and the miracle season wasn’t over yet. Rock’s House erupted in celebration as Notre Dame’s offense got ready to run back onto the field. Amidst the euphoria, hardly anyone heard the head official turn on his microphone and utter the six most demoralizing words in football, “there’s a flag on the play”.
In an unfathomable twist of fate, Notre Dame had been penalized for having two #2s on the field at the same time. Elation turned to disbelief as Pittsburgh was awarded 5 yards and an automatic first down. Graham ran for a gain of 3 and again for a gain of 4. Notre Dame Stadium was still in shock as Kevin Harper trotted back onto the field for a 2nd chance at breaking Notre Dame’s heart- this time from 21 yards out and on the middle hash. Harper’s chance at redemption sailed through the uprights and just like that, the luck of the Irish had run out- the magical season was over.
Notre Dame’s defenders fell to their knees, burying their heads in the grass, as Pitt’s sideline flooded the field in jubilation. As I peered on in disbelief, a familiar feeling of emptiness came over me- it was reminiscent of 10 years earlier when I watched, from the same section of Notre Dame Stadium, as Boston College stunned the 8-0 Irish, ending another perfect season. I was choking back tears.
Notre Dame’s climb back to the top, the perfect season and the dream of a National Championship were hanging in the balance and, of all possible outcomes, it all ended because there were two #2s on the field at the same time. Two #2s on the field at the same time? How could a game with so much at stake, end in such a colossal blunder? Brian Kelly, who was noticeably distraught in his postgame interview, took full responsibility for the massive mistake, apologizing to the players, coaches, students and Notre Dame Faithful.
True to form, every Notre Dame detractor who had been dormant for the first 8 weeks of the season suddenly came out of the woodworks. ND hate rained down on Twitter and Facebook. In an article accompanied by a picture of Brian Kenny embracing a distraught Manti Teo, ESPN.com
called it sport’s biggest gaffe since Mookie Wilson’s slow grounder trickled through Bill Buckner’s legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The same photo appeared on the front page of the Chicago Tribune with the title “Irish Blunder“. Mark May bragged that he knew Pitt would win all along, scornfully exclaiming that Notre Dame deserved to lose after benefiting from a questionable call at the end of the Stanford game, in week 6. The voters, who had been anxiously waiting for Notre Dame to be exposed as a fraud, dropped the Irish to #15 in the AP poll, behind three two loss teams- one of which was Oklahoma who Notre Dame had beaten the previous week.
By the time the dust had settled, reality had set in- Notre Dame was not a title contender, never deserved to be ranked in the top 3 and was most definitely not “back”. The haters and cynics had been right, all along
So as 8-1 Notre Dame begins to try and salvage the rest of its season with a trip to Boston College, this week- I can’t help but wonder what could have been. What if the referee never saw the two #2s? What if Pitt’s missed field goal stood and Notre Dame got the ball back and won? What if the perfect season was still intact? The more I think about it, the more I think that losing to Pittsburgh in such an unfathomable manner just doesn’t seem to fit what I thought this team was all about. One of the beautiful things about the psychology of sport is that just as bad teams tend to lose games they should win, championship teams tend to win games that by every conceivably measure they should lose- it’s a trend that absolutely includes getting lucky. What perplexes me is that although I’ve seen bad Notre Dame teams lose in every imaginable way- horrific clock management (1999 Purdue and every other game Bob Davie ever coached in), excessive celebration (1999 Michigan), cursed jerseys (2002 Boston College), illegal pushing (2005 SC), fake field goals (2010 Michigan State), lack of preparation (2010 Navy)- I’ve never seen one of the truly special teams lose a game in such bizarre fashion. Had the two #2s gone unnoticed, there’s no doubt it would have been a lucky break of epic proportion, but, to me, it would have made perfect sense. Sometimes football transcends blocking, tackling, and refereeing. Sometimes what should have happened is not what was meant to happen. My gut told me that this Notre Dame squad was one of those special, once in a generation, type teams that win despite every possible reason why they shouldn’t. I really thought the football Gods had a bigger plan for this team. I honestly believed it was a team of destiny. I guess I was wrong. Some things are just unexplainable.