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November 3, 2012

The great escape

II Game Story With Sidebar

NOTRE DAME, Ind. - He told him so and couldn’t wait to tell him again.

So after Everett Golson’s game-winning touchdown run was reviewed and upheld, putting a nail in Notre Dame’s 29-26 triple-overtime comeback, Theo Riddick found Cierre Wood in the postgame madness. The roommates hugged, Riddick repeating what he said an overtime earlier after Wood’s lost fumble in the end zone.

“That’s my best friend,” Riddick said. “Huge relief. Who wants to be that person that fumbles at the one-inch line in overtime? We’re a team and we stuck it out together.”

No. 4 Notre Dame needed every bit of adhesive to start 9-0 for the first time in 19 years.

The Irish overcame Wood’s fumble in the second overtime, a missed chip shot Pitt field goal that would have ended it, two flashback interceptions from Notre Dame’s quarterbacks, Manti Te’o virtually vanishing from the first half, a missed extra point, Louis Nix slowed by flu and Matthias Farley hampered by hand surgery.

Inexplicably, the Irish survived it all, keeping their national championship dream alive, but only if Notre Dame reapplies some polish to its preparation and some finish to its red zone performance.

Brian Kelly protested that Notre Dame practiced well for Pittsburgh.

The Irish players knew that didn’t carry over into Notre Dame Stadium, where the home team has won its five games by a combined 23 points, needing four total overtimes to get that job done.

“I think just maybe taking this week lightly a little bit, thinking that we could play Pitt and not play our A game, maybe play our B game and still get the W,” said TJ Jones. “It took us a while to kind of catch on and click. But once we figured out that this was gonna be a battle, we got things rolling.”

That realization didn’t come until the fourth quarter with Pitt up 20-6 thanks to Ray Graham’s dominant performance that included a 55-yard run on the Panthers’ first play and a 16-yard touchdown just before halftime. The first running back to rush for a touchdown against the Irish finished with 24 carries and 172 yards.

But the Panthers crumbled in the fourth quarter and overtimes under the weight of both Irish lines. During those periods, Notre Dame ran 43 plays for 223 yards and scored 23 points. Pitt ran 23 plays for 21 yards and scored six points.

The Irish finished the first three quarters with 299 yards total offense and finished the game with 522. Not only did three Irish players rush for at least 70 yards, Notre Dame also sacked Tino Sunseri five times.

“Coach Kelly, when he first got here, he said to really be successful we’ve got to run the football and stop the run,” said Zack Martin. “Although we didn’t do that all day, at the end of the day we were able to.”

Not only did Notre Dame need Pittsburgh kicker Kevin Harper to miss a 33-yard chip shot in the second overtime following Wood’s fumble, the Irish also needed Everett Golson to bounce back from another Kelly benching.

The sophomore got pulled late in the second quarter for missing reads, according to Kelly, then went back in following a Rees interception that turned into to Pitt’s final touchdown, a nine-yard pass from Sunseri to tight end J.P. Holtz.

Golson finished 23-of-42 for 227 yards and two touchdowns. All but the yardage mark were career-highs. He also rushed 15 times for 74 yards, including the game-winning touchdown and the game-tying two-point conversion with 2:11 left in the fourth quarter.

Golson also threw a potentially game-ending interception in the end zone midway through the fourth quarter, meaning Notre Dame’s 15-play, 91-yard drive ended with no points. Pitt took over with 3:59 to play, still up 20-12.

“What I'm looking for is a guy that continues to mature and grow up, and this was another opportunity for him,” Kelly said. “He could have kept his head down and said, ‘I can't help us.’ He wanted to go back in there and help his football team. So that's a learning step for him.”

In the fourth quarter Golson either passed or ran on 23 of Notre Dame’s 27 plays.

“He never got down on himself, never second guessed anything,” said DaVaris Daniels, who caught a 45-yard bomb from Golson one play before the game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion. “Everett is just a competitor. He knows how to make plays.”

Notre Dame exited the stadium conscious it didn’t score any style points in the BCS pageant against Alabama, Oregon and Kansas State. In fact, the Irish probably had a few deducted considering the surprising drama here.

Kelly laughed off any question of BCS rankings. His players knew they can’t replicate this performance against Boston College, Wake Forest and USC and expect that question to even be asked.

Two-point conversions in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus can’t be part of the game plan.

“You’ve got to look at it from a realistic standpoint for the moment,” Riddick said. “It’s a great win, but when you go back in film we’ve got to change some things and we’ve got to play better overall. We obviously understand we didn’t play our best brand of football today.”

Instead, the Irish relied on their most dramatic. Against the Panthers, that was enough.





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