PITTSBURGH - The thread by which Notre Dame’s precarious BCS bid hung finally snapped in Heinz Field.
A pair of Tommy Rees interceptions, the first in the Pittsburgh end zone and the second that led directly to the game-winning score, helped the Panthers (5-4) avenge last year’s bitter triple-overtime loss to the Irish (7-3) with a 28-21 victory Saturday night.
“The execution on offense was awful. Defensively, we kept drives alive with a pass interference penalty, a personal foul. We weren’t alert enough to get on a fumble. We gave up an explosive play in the passing game, and we didn’t coach well enough,” summarized Irish head coach Brian Kelly.
“Coaches are responsible for getting their players to execute. That’s why we’re hired, that’s what we do. We didn’t get that from our players tonight, so I’m responsible for that.”
Leading 14-7 at halftime, the Irish allowed a 13-play, 69-yard drive to tie the game. After Rees hit TJ Jones for an 80-yard score to take the lead with 3:29 left in the third quarter, the Irish would not score again.
With the game tied at 21, the Irish defense inexplicably failed to chase a fumble caused by a Prince Shembo sack. After Pittsburgh punted to the Irish, Rees was intercepted by free safety Ray Vinopal for a second time, which the Panthers converted into a short touchdown drive that provided the winning points with 9:36 remaining.
“I appreciate what the players and coaches did,” said Pittsburgh head coach Paul Chryst. “We were able to do enough things tonight to win. I thought all the units did a heckuva job and contributed, and that’s what makes this one feel good.”
The loss was just Kelly’s second in 13 November games with the Irish. The seven-point margin was the sixth consecutive game between the Panthers and Irish decided by single digits. Notre Dame had won three straight against Pittsburgh by a total of 12 points.
Notre Dame enters the bye week a shattered football team after attempting to win their fifth straight, which would have kept them firmly planted in the top 25 and moving up to the ladder to what they hoped would be an eventual top 14 ranking, which would qualify them for a BCS game.
But after living on the edge for the better part of two seasons - and winning 20 straight games as the favorite - Notre Dame’s inconsistent play finally caught up to them. After rushing for 128 yards on 18 carries in the first half, Notre Dame finished with 138 yards on 24 carries, or just 10 yards on six attempts after the intermission.
Still, the Irish had a chance to take the lead early in the fourth quarter when Rees, trying to squeeze a pass into Chris Brown at the back of the end zone, was picked off by Vinopal.
Five plays later, Shembo stripped quarterback Tom Savage of the football, and the ball bounded into the breadbasket of defensive end Sheldon Day. When he didn’t come up with it cleanly, he batted it away in frustration, thinking that it had been ruled an incomplete pass. But the whistle hadn’t blown, and the Panthers punted it away instead of the Irish taking over at approximately the Pittsburgh 35-yard line.
“It was just a lapse,” Kelly explained. “A bunch of inexperienced guys out there not seeing that they should have been on the ball.”
Notre Dame played for the final three quarters without Stephon Tuitt when he was whistled for a personal foul and targeting penalty on his hit of Savage. It should be noted that Pittsburgh scored four touchdowns over the final three quarters without Tuitt on the field, but Notre Dame’s offensive miscues were more than enough to doom the Irish.
“I take responsibility and accountability for (the interceptions),” said Rees, who completed 18-of-39 for 318 yards and two touchdowns. “When you put your defense in compromising situations like that, it’s hard for your defense to make stops.
“It starts with me, it starts with our senior leaders, and we’ve got to come back better. There are definitely little things you need to do to win games.”
Notre Dame used a 35-yard run by TJ Jones and a 4th-and-4 conversion pass to Ben Koyack - who fell to the turf, got back up and made the catch - en route to a 7-0 lead with 3:41 left in the first quarter.
After George Atkinson III took a push-pass from Rees for 14 yards, Rees hooked up with DaVaris Daniels for a 10-yard touchdown reception, his first since the third game of the season against Purdue.
The momentum of the game appeared to turn against the Irish on the first play of the second quarter when Tuitt was called for a personal foul/targeting penalty on Savage. The Panthers then went on a 10-play, 71-yard drive to knot the score at 7-7.
But the Irish responded with a circuitous go-ahead touchdown for a 14-7 halftime lead. Jones’ 40-yard reception turned disastrous when he failed to fully secure the football, coughed it up on a hit by Vinopal, and cornerback Lafayette Pitts recovered at the Irish six.
The Irish forced a three-and-out, and after a pass to Koyack was ruled down at the one instead of a touchdown, Jones took an inside handoff for the touchdown and a 14-7 halftime lead.
Notre Dame’s momentum left them completely after Jones’ long touchdown reception late in the third quarter. Kelly waved off the disappointment of falling out of the BCS running, instead focusing on more important things.
“I’m not really concerned about that,” Kelly said. “What I’m most concerned about is the inability to put together a consistent effort tonight in November, 10 games into the season.
“For me, there’s no reason why, and I take full responsibility for it as the head coach. There’s no reason why we don’t execute at the level we should in November.”