A quick look down the statistics from the Notre Dame-Pittsburgh game on Saturday shows the contest for what it was: a close, well-fought game.
Pittsburgh outrushed Notre Dame 178-115, but the Irish passing attack outgained the Panthers 271-168. Notre Dame ran more total plays (83-77), but Pitt won the time of possession battle (31:16-28:44). The Irish caused the only three turnovers in the game, but the Panthers held slight edges in virtually every special teams category and were eight of eight in the red zone, while Notre Dame was five of six.
Charlie Weis has said that there were 50 different plays that could have changed the outcome in such a close game, but there were five offensive snaps on fourth down and all five went Pittsburgh's way.
The Panthers were a perfect three-for-three on fourth down while the Irish were stopped both times they went for it on fourth down, including the final attempt with less than a minute left in regulation. If any of the five fourth-down conversion attempts go Notre Dame's way it's entirely possible that the outcome of the game would have followed.
Neither team took a chance on fourth down in the opening half, with the first attempt coming on Pittsburgh's opening drive of the second half.
After Harrison Smith's silly personal foul kept the Panthers' drive alive, Pitt drove the ball to the Irish 41-yard line. On 3rd-and-1, fully aware that they would go for it on fourth down, the Panthers ran a play-action pass and Pat Bostick overthrew a wide-open Jonathan Baldwin for a would-be touchdown. Surprisingly, Pitt went back to the air on 4th-and-1 and Bostick hit Oderick Turner on a little hitch pattern for the first\, but Turner shook off Terrail Lambert's tackle and rambled down to the Irish 4-yard line.
Pitt scored on the next play to make the score 17-10. If the Panthers do not convert that fourth down than not only does their first touchdown drive stall, but also the Irish offense starts with a short field. A Notre Dame touchdown, or maybe even a field goal, starts to take LeSean McCoy as a run threat out of the game with the Panthers trailing by three scores.
Notre Dame had the next fourth-down attempt on its second drive of the third quarter. Raeshon McNeil picked off a Bostick pass and returned it to the Pitt 37. At the time it seemed like McNeil's second interception of the game was the boost that the Irish needed to put this game out of reach, but the Notre Dame offense failed to pick up a first down.
Notre Dame faced a 4th-and-7 at Pitt's 34-yard line, probably a little out of Brandon Walker's range and definitely too close to punt. There is no reason to second-guess the decision to go for it, but the playcall was curious. Jimmy Clausen threw a slip screen to Michael Floyd, but the Pitt defenders swarmed the freshman receiver and he failed to gain a yard, let alone seven.
If the Irish dial up a play that does convert the first down, they're looking at 1st-and-10 inside the Pitt 30 and are in great position to push it back to a two-possession game. Down two possessions with less than 25 minutes to go, Pitt would not be forced to abandon the run, but would be that much closer to having to rely on a backup quarterback rather than an All-American candidate runner.
Pitt was in a similar no-man's land situation on its first drive of the fourth quarter, but the Panthers converted. Facing a 4th-and-2 from the Notre Dame 37, LaRod Stephens-Howling lined up at quarterback in Pitt's version of the ‘Wildcat' and knifed his way for five yards and the first off the left side. Stephens-Howling gave way to McCoy, who carried the ball five straight plays for 32 yards and a touchdown to tie the game 17-17 with 11:03 left in the game.
Notre Dame responded with a touchdown drive of its own on the next possession, but a stop on that fourth down play would have made time a major factor even if the Irish did not come out as aggressive as they did.
Pitt's final fourth down attempt was the biggest play of regulation as the Panthers trailed 24-17 and faced a 4th-and-6 from the Irish 10 with just over two minutes to go. After throwing fades out of bounds to Baldwin on second and third down, Bostick underthrew the 6-foot-5 target and made sure to keep it in play on fourth down. Baldwin went up and easily made the tying touchdown grab over the 6-foot McNeil.
This one is simple. With two minutes left and only one timeout remaining, if Bostick and Baldwin fail to hook up again on fourth down, the game is over.
Notre Dame had the final and most curious fourth-down attempt with 40 seconds left in regulation. The Irish had a 4th-and-1 at midfield and called timeout to discuss a playcall. Clausen went out to the huddle, but as the play clock started to wind down he called another timeout, Notre Dame's final one.
"He didn't feel comfortable when we were coming out of it that we had the play exactly the right way," Weis said. "I explained to him that we have another timeout. If there's any problem right here, just go ahead and burn it."
The burning of the last timeout proved costly though as the Irish lined up and it was obvious to both quarterback and coach that they were in trouble. Notre Dame was expecting Pitt to be in man-to-man coverage with everyone geared up to stop running back James Aldridge, but when Duval Kamara was sent in motion, it was clear that the Panthers would be in zone and Clausen was stuck.
"It was too late to audible at that time, when you already sent the guy across the field," Weis said. "The (Pitt cornerback), I believe he was probably supposed to run across the field, but he didn't. Once he didn't, I have a couple choice words because you're sitting there watching it. Sort of like, 'Oh, no.' I might have said, 'Oh, no,' but just a little different way."
Oh, no was right as the Irish staff had called for a play-action pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph, who would now be covered. Clausen faked to Aldridge and, when he saw that Rudolph was indeed blanketed, tried to run for the yard but was stopped for no gain.
"Actually, we were trying to score. Normally in that situation they bring everybody up close to the line of scrimmage to try to stop you. In that case, when we sent Duval over in motion, the corner didn't run over with him," Weis said. "It kind of looked on tape like maybe he thought he was supposed to run over with him, but he stopped, which now left us -- when he stopped, it kind of left us one man too much on defense right there. So Jimmy just tried to run for the first down. There was no sense throwing the ball at that time."
If Notre Dame is able to convert that 4th-and-short, the Irish still would likely have to pick up another 15 or 20 yards to give Walker a decent shot, but Clausen probably would have had three plays to do it. If the Irish had been able to give Walker a chance, maybe he makes it and he's a campus hero right now instead of walking into class with his head down on Monday.
Weis says that he'd be able to point out 45 other plays that would have made the same impact as the five above, but the only thing that matters is that the Irish did not make those plays and they did not win the game. There is no question that this team is talented and that it has improved vastly in just a year, but Notre Dame needs to make the plays that make a difference.