A season that began with BCS aspirations has gone awry in South Bend as the dangerous but woefully incomplete Fighting Irish dropped consecutive games for the first time this season with tonight's 27-22 loss to Pittsburgh at Heinz Field.
And for the second straight week, the previously potent Irish were forced to play catch-up, falling behind the Panthers 10-3 at the half and 20-3 midway through the third period before embarking on a furious late rally and a final shot to steal the contest, taking possession of the football at their own 21-yard line, down five with 3:31 remaining.
Three completions by Irish junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen totaled 22 yards, but senior guard Dan Wenger was whistled for a chop block and the subsequent 15-yard mark off moved the Irish back from a 2nd and 1 situation at their own 43 to 2nd and 16 at the 27.
After an incomplete pass set up 3rd and 16, Clausen was pressured from the backside by Panthers defensive end Greg Romeus while attempting to hit wide receiver Robby Parris over the middle. Though the play was initially ruled an incomplete pass, the replay official overturned the call on the field, ruling a fumble and possession to the Panthers, sealing Notre Dame's fate.
Pittsburgh head coach Dave Wannstedt credited his senior class for the victory, the Panthers ninth in 10 outings this season.
"It was a great win for the program, a great win for the kids, particularly those who were around here five years ago when we had a bad experience (in a loss to the Irish). It was great to walk out of here tonight with a little better feeling."
The Panthers struck first with a 13-play, 62-yard march that ended in a 34-yard field goal by kicker Dan Hutchins to give the hosts a 3-0 advantage. Pittsburgh's effort was aided by a 4th down, 15-yard roughing the punter penalty on Irish linebacker Darius Fleming, a portent of things to come for the suddenly sloppy Irish.
Notre Dame focused on the run and screen game early, enjoying success with the former as junior halfback Armando Allen gained 30 yards on five carries in the opening quarter (52 yards on 8 rushes in the first half), but the offense struggled to find room vs. the Panthers linebackers on designed screens, suffering a sack, an incompletion, and a loss of five yards on three tries.
Head coach Charlie Weis offered that a somewhat conservative game plan was par for the course in a hostile road environment.
"It was how we called the game," Weis began "We were playing the game relatively conservatively (early). When you're playing the game on the road; raucous crowd, I think it's important to understand how to call a game. You don't call a game the same way at home as you do on the road.
"We're sitting there at 3-3 with five minutes to go in the 2nd Quarter. To be honest with you, we were in a pretty good spot (at the time)."
Junior walk-on kicker David Ruffer, making an emergency appearance due to a pre-game injury by starting kicker Nicholas Tausch, drilled a 42-yard field goal for Notre Dame's only points of the opening half.
The Irish defense held Panthers star tailback Dion Lewis in check in the first half, with one costly exception: a 21-yard scamper on the Panthers only touchdown drive. The change in field position allowed Jonathan Baldwin to handle the heavy lifting as the 6'5" 225-pound walking mismatch snared a crucial 3rd and 10 reception on a 22-yard square in, and followed with a 32-yard diving-catch on a go-route for a score and 10-3 Panthers advantage, a lead they'd hold entering intermission.
Baldwin struck again on the Panthers first play of the 2nd half, out jumping Irish senior cornerback Darrin Walls for an 51-yard gain down the right sideline. Three plays later, with the Panthers threatening at the Notre Dame 20-yard line, Ian Williams blew up a 3rd and 1 fullback dive to force another Hutchins field goal and the Panthers extended their lead to 13-3.
Following a Notre Dame three-and-out, Lewis' understudy and classmate Ray Graham ran around, over, through, past and beyond Notre Dame's would-be tacklers for a 53-yard gain to the Notre Dame 2-yard line. Graham was rewarded for his efforts on the ensuing play with a touchdown plunge to extend the Panthers lead to 20-3 with 6:36 remaining in the third period.
The Irish answered with a 3-wide receiver, no-huddle offense and, facing a 4th and 1 from his own 40-yard line, Weis rolled the dice, calling for a play-action fake that allowed sophomore receiver Michael Floyd to get behind the Panthers secondary for 45-yard post route completion to the Pittsburgh 15.
In keeping with recent red zone custom, the Irish immediately marched backward thanks to consecutive penalties (holding and illegal formation) but Clausen again responded, hitting consecutive out routes to set up first and goal at the Panthers 4-yard line. Allen was stopped twice before Clausen scored on a QB sneak from the one.
Notre Dame's short lived momentum was stifled as junior defensive end Greg Romeus broke through to block Ruffer's point after attempt keeping the Irish at bay, 20-9 with 14:56 remaining in the contest.
Pittsburgh responded with little resistance from the Irish defense, traveling 80 yards in 5 plays, scoring on a 50-yard touchdown run by Lewis who sprinted untouched (with a nifty cut to elude Irish safety Sergio Brown) en route to the end zone.
In full crisis mode, the Irish offense marched 71 yards in 11 plays, burning 3:34 off the clock before a Clausen to Tate catch-and-run cut the Panthers lead to 11, 27-16.
The Irish defense held the Panthers on three snaps and junior playmaker Golden Tate responded, returning the ensuing Panthers punt 87 yards for a touchdown. A failed two-point conversion attempt held Pittsburgh's lead at five, 27-22, with 7:16 remaining.
After the aforementioned officials replay ruled Clausen's final touch of the contest a fumble, Pittsburgh managed one first down before taking a knee to end the contest.
The Irish fall to 6-4 on the season and return home in preparation for next Saturday's home-finale vs. the Connecticut Huskies.
Irish players were understandably somber on the heels of another difficult defeat.
"That's a tough loss," Clausen stated. "It felt like we were moving the ball but we let it slip away."
Tonight's contest was the eighth Notre Dame game this season decided by a touchdown or less as Notre Dame's four losses have totaled an aggregate 18 points.