Notre Dame's second win of the year was far less aesthetically pleasing than its second loss; and less impressive on the stat sheet than its first.
Its apparent Brian Kelly's Irish aren't among the game's ever-shrinking top tier – the teams that can play consistent football en route to weekly victory. The season's fourth showing was perhaps its least impressive to date, but unlike the opening pair that earned Notre Dame the moniker, the "best 0-2 team in football" the beauty of this contest lies in the result – no one outside the program walls and its fan base will care how or why a "W" appears on the ledger – just, "if."
As the team's head coach offered post-game, "Anytime you're on the road, find a way to win."
Back EvenKelly's Irish took this win thanks to consistent play by the defense and (again) by running back Cierre Wood. Thanks to a bolt of lightning by maligned backup ‘back Jonas Gray, and due to a clutch performance by tight end Tyler Eifert. It was Eifert who secured four of Tommy Rees eight passes on the team's go-ahead touchdown drive including a two-point conversion that pushed the score to 15-12 with 6:48 remaining.
After spraying errant passes around the Heinz Field turf for the game's first 3.5 quarters (16-33 passing for 141 yards), Rees didn't miss once on the decisive drive, covering 85 yards in 11 plays for the winning score – his second such go-ahead march in two weeks, only this time the defense didn't lose focus, securing the win with a late pass-rush and fourth-and-forever stop of Pittsburgh's scattered offense.
Irish fans have Saturday's evening hours to lament an ugly victory, but for those in search of a secondary silver lining – if a win to draw even on the season isn't enough – attention can again be turned to the defense.
Given a short field thanks to an early Rees fumble, the Irish D allowed no yards on three plays to force a field goal, its first crucial win of the day. They held again facing 1st and 10l at the 11, including a crucial 3rd and 1 stop to force field goal No. 2.
And for the second straight week, the opponent found little room to roam between the tackles; the Panthers averaging 2.7 yards on 38 carries despite a 42-yard burst from dynamo Ray Graham (a breathtaking, ankle-breaking move in space included). Pittsburgh ran for 103, threw for just 165, and its best offensive drive needed the reprieve of a roughing the punter penalty following a three-and-out.
Pitt's offensive numbers should have been easy to overcome, but one-third through the 2011 season, nothing as come easy for the Irish.
Still Searching…For the second straight week, a standout first-half effort on the ground was sullied by a lack of running room in the second. And for the fourth straight week, Notre Dame turned the ball over multiple times and yet again inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
The staple scare of the season – a horrendous special teams gaffe(s) – returned, with a roughing the punter penalty at the Panthers 5-yard line affording the hosts a new set of downs; the result its only touchdown march of the day.
Throw in a missed chip shot field goal (terrible snap/great hold/pushed kick), the requisite personal foul penalty to wipe away a big gain, and the now expected pair of errors from Rees and the Fighting Irish once again seemed determined to test the undying love of their shell-shocked fan base.
2-2 is ugly; except when a team loses its first two. Struggling quarterbacks need to be replaced; except when they rally their team with a full-field journey to victory.
And turnovers and mental penalties are a death knell; except…well, those are still going to kill the 2011 season if not soon eradicated. The Irish have committed a ridiculous 15 turnovers through the season's first 16 quarters. Entering Saturday's action, nine FBS teams had still committed just one, including Kelly's former program, Cincinnati. The Bearcats likewise finished first among all 120 FBS teams in Kelly's final season at the helm, losing the football just 10 times in 13 games
Why then can his Irish not secure the football? 17 games, 39 turnovers, and 32 touchdowns in 59 visits to the red zone.
Kelly's post-game words quote above don't inspire, but they'll grow truer with each passing day leading up to next week's prime time road tussle in West Lafayette.
The Irish get a clean slate every week; this time in the wake of a two-game winning streak with a Week Four "W" etched in the only category that matters.
Ugly, unless you earned itA wounded opponent; an early start on the road; playing on the heels of an emotional victory that allowed the entire program to exhale…Pittsburgh wasn't and won't be a great team, but this was a tougher spot than most Irish fans cared to admit.
"You're going to be presented with some of these closely-fought, last-drive, come-up-with-a-big-stop or big conversion, and that's what we saw today," Kelly said post-game.
Last week's win over Michigan State was more impressive – this one more difficult to secure. Ask any member of Saturday's traveling roster or coaching staff and they'll agree, likely deriving more athletic pride from a victory such as today's, one that could have easily slipped away. A loss would have crushed the season's end goals – whatever they may be. A loss would, as noted in the game preview, send the Irish on a collision course with another nothing, only-the-diehards care Bowl.
After 0-2, a season evolves into a taxing weekly attempt to survive and advance. The Irish did, and for the first time since the 2010 season-ending sigh of relief in Los Angeles, they showed the heart of a champion under adverse conditions.
That's the first step toward playing like one.
Note: The weekly At First Glance review of each position unit and Notre Dame's Top 10 players will be published Sunday Morning.