It was like a dream.
Notre Dame, coming off a 30-13 victory at Oklahoma to raise its record to 8-0 and lift them to No. 4 in the country, was back in Notre Dame Stadium for a home tilt against a 4-4 Pittsburgh Panthers squad.
Notre Dame football was indeed back, but the celebration was short-lived.
On the first Saturday in November, the Panthers led, 10-6, at halftime. A 21-yard field goal by Kevin Harper - his second of the game - gave the Panthers a 20-6 lead with 58 seconds left in the third quarter.
Irish quarterback Everett Golson was struggling, so Brian Kelly had gone with veteran signalcaller Tommy Rees in the second quarter. Yet the Irish had yet to score a touchdown and Rees had completed 6-of-11 passes for 64 yards with an interception, so Kelly went back to Golson to see if he could loosen up Pittsburgh’s stingy defense.
An 11-yard touchdown pass to TJ Jones early in the fourth quarter was the first step, but Kyle Brindza’s extra-point attempt was no good and the Irish trailed, 20-12. Golson would drive the offense deep into Panther territory again, only to have his pass picked off in the end zone.
The Irish would get one more shot, and Theo Riddick’s five-yard touchdown reception with 2:11 remaining pulled Notre Dame within two. Golson’s two-point conversion run tied the game and sent it into overtime.
After an exchange of field goals in the first overtime, Cierre Wood fumbled into the end zone, which the Panthers recovered. All the Panthers would need to complete the double-overtime victory was a field goal by Harper, who by now had booted three in the game.
Lining up from 33 yards out, Harper pushed his attempt to the right. No penalty was called against the Irish despite the fact that Bennett Jackson and Chris Brown, both wearing No. 2, were in the game for the missed field goal.
Harper would boot his fourth field goal from 44 yards in the third overtime, but Golson’s one-yard sneak gave the victory to the Irish.
Notre Dame was now 9-0 and their national title hopes were still alive.
TJ Jones, do you remember what you were thinking when Harper lined up for the game-winning field goal?
“Uh oh,” said Jones, recalling the moment. “I wasn’t supposed to think it was over, but a chip-shot field goal, most of the time, you expect him to make it.”
Stephon Tuitt was among the nine players on the field not wearing No. 2 for the Irish when Harper missed.
“It was a miracle,” Tuitt said. “They played their best game against us, but it happened. It’s one of those things you can’t control. He ended up missing it and it came out in our favor.”
Meanwhile, the Irish offensive linemen were standing along the sideline, some watching the kick, others looking into the stands or simply down at the ground, awaiting the crowd’s reaction and hoping for another chance to take the field.
“Man, this perfect season, something’s got to happen,” said left guard Chris Watt of his thought process in the seconds leading up to the miss. “Just kind of praying to God, ‘Give us another opportunity.’
“It was a short field goal. It was luck. That was some luck right there.”
Watching the film earlier in the week, left tackle Zack Martin’s memory was jogged seeing Wood’s goal-line fumble.
“I totally forgot about the fumble in the end zone,” Martin said. “I forgot how they had a field goal without us scoring.
“We got lucky there. We stole one. I was just looking at the ground when he kicked it. It was relief knowing we had another opportunity to get that one.”
It’s a lesson that isn’t lost on the Irish one year later. Saturday night, the Irish face another 4-4 Pittsburgh team, only this time on the Panthers’ Heinz Field turf, where they have won all three games played there this year, albeit against New Mexico, Virginia and Old Dominion.
“They always have a big, physical line, and their running backs are always good,” said inside linebacker Carlo Calabrese. “If their running backs are stopped, they go right to their passing offense, and they’re pretty much good all around.”
“They’re a very physical team and they know how to fight to the end, and that’s what we’ve prided ourselves on the last year or two,” Martin said. “We know it’s going to be another tough, physical game.”
Jones expects another classic Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh battle with the Irish winning the last three by a grand total of 12 points.
“Just in general, it’s always a hard-fought game,” Jones said. “They take us down to the wire every year. Last year it was three overtimes. Every game in the last three years has been within seven points. It’s definitely a hard-fought game every year.
“It’s Pittsburgh-Notre Dame. We’re going to get each team’s best effort every week, and that, along with the type of guys they recruit, lends itself to a great game every year.”
Good luck topping last year’s classic.