Few will note the never-say-die effort of Zeke Motta Saturday when a Pittsburgh team that didn't know they were supposed to roll over nearly put the nail in Notre Dame's coffin.
Already trailing 17-6 with 3:20 remaining in the third quarter, Irish killer Ray Graham took a handoff over left tackle from his own 39-yard line. He then proceeded down a familiar path chosen during his standout four-year Panthers career: one around and through the Irish defense. With a phalanx of blockers in front it seemed Graham would finish off this, his fourth run in excess of 40 yards vs. Notre Dame in as many seasons, with a debilitating touchdown score and subsequent 24-6 lead for the visitors.
But one Irish senior, Zeke Motta -- a player that had a a field's eye view of Graham's electric feet for four seasons -- refused to lose. First faked out in space, Motta spun and sprinted 40 yards downfield, fighting off a block by Pittsburgh wide receiver Ronald Jones at the Irish 20-yard line, then diving for an ankle tackle of Graham at the 13.
"You could point to that. You could point to we held them to a field goal after a first and goal situation. We made a couple big plays there too," said head coach Brian Kelly of the end result of the same drive. "I think our guys understand those effort plays can come back and help you. That's another indication that sometimes when these games go your way, you're making more plays that actually get registered when you're talking about them. That's a classic case of making the little plays turn into something big."
The hustle play saved a touchdown, Notre Dame's red zone defense again forced a field goal, and the end result of Motta's hustle was four valuable points off the board and a 20-6 Panthers lead. Notre Dame rallied thereafter, tying the score at 20 to force overtime.
The play was recorded as a solo tackle on Motta's stat sheet. It might have saved Notre Dame's BCS Bowl hopes in the process.
First Drive FolliesNotre Dame has played five home games this season, winning each. A win two weeks from now over Wake Forest will give the program its first undefeated home slate since 1998.
It won't be because of how they start these home town soirees.
Each of the five home tilts has included a first drive penalty by the Irish offense. In four of the five, said penalty was assessed pre-snap. The fifth was worse, a face mask by the Irish following an Everett Golson interception.
Kelly has stated the Irish don't start flat, but they don't start sharp, either.
"I just think that's focus and attention to detail. We had a penalty when we just didn't have our "W" (receiver) on the line of scrimmage," he said. "It's like from day one you've got to be somebody that is not concentrating for a penalty like that to occur. So, yeah, I attribute it to the guys have just got to be sharper."
Notre Dame committed six penalties yesterday in a triple overtime win. Five occurred in the first period.
The New RealityHave we finally seen a few chinks in the armor?
Pittsburgh's 308 total yards were more than six 2012 foes managed to date (302 in regulation) and the Panthers two touchdowns scored -- remarkably tied for the most allowed by Bob Diaco's unit this season -- involved chunk plays that gashed the normally disciplined Irish defense.
Another rushing touchdown allowed, this time the result of a missed fit and missed dead-to-rights-tackle thereafter.
The good news, of course, is that we're nitpicking a defensive effort that included success on 13 of 14 third-down situations, just 21 yards allowed on the opponent's last 23 snaps, and three overtime periods played without suffering a first down against.
Yes, times and perceptions have changed for Irish fans and their devastating defense. Team's don't dent the scoreboard often, and Pittsburgh needed four quarters and three overtimes to score 23 points. The Irish played competitive, winning defensive football yesterday, even dominating late.
But that effort included missed tackles, assignments, and allowance of big plays heretofore not seen through two months of standout football.
"Ray Graham, broke tackles; we missed tackles uncharacteristically," said head coach Brian Kelly of Pittsburgh's standout senior runner. "He's a great back too, but certainly I thought he ran extremely well.
"We tackled subpar for us in terms of our defense. I know Coach (Bob) Diaco would not be happy right now. But (the defense) found a way to shut them down in the second half, and that is the key. We shut them down in overtime. We took (Graham) and really were able to control him late in the game."
After three quarters in which Graham ripped off 173 all purpose yards (151 rushing), Diaco's defense rediscovered its roots, limiting the electric playmaker to 24 more yards on 12 touches in the fourth quarter and trio of overtimes. Graham's day included the two longest runs of the season vs. the Irish: 55 and 48 yards (his third and fourth career runs in excess of 40 yards vs. Notre Dame).
His final 12 touches thereafter? -2, 2, 4, 0, -1, 7 (on 3rd and 17), 0, -3, 2, 4, 4, 1, with two incomplete passes in his direction.
Diaco's defense hasn't allowed a touchdown in four overtime periods. The unit has yielded just two in nine fourth quarters this fall. But they'll have to be better than they were Saturday vs. Pittsburgh to win at USC and in a likely BCS bowl matchup.
Fortunate for Irish fans and the program, they have been all season.