Tino Sunseri had his best outing of the season, completing 27-of-39 passes for 272 yards and a touchdown. He also accounted for Pitt's other touchdown, running it in from four yards out with 3:12 left in the third quarter. Overall, the Panthers outgained the Irish 382-329, with both teams running 70 plays apiece.
In the second half, Pitt outgained the Irish 198-151. In the third quarter, Pitt's defense held the Notre Dame to just one first down and 36 yards.
"We just aren't putting a full game of football together. We come up here and play a good football team on the road, We move the football in the first half, but we have to settle for attempted field goals. We don't finish the drive. We didn't scored touchdowns."
Pitt trailed 17-3 at halftime, and could have very easily held a halftime lead. Their downfall was the fact they couldn't convert opportunities in the red zone on offense. On defense, they couldn't come up with enough big plays.
Despite running a fast-pace, up-tempo kind of offense, the Irish were still racking up the plays and sustaining some long drives. Their first scoring drive which ended in a 1-yard pass from Dayne Crist to Michael Floyd, lasted 13 plays, 77 yards and took 4:50 off the clock. Pitt answered, driving all the way to the Notre Dame 11. After making a 26-yard field goal to open the scoring, Dan Hutchins missed a 27-yard field goal.
When the Irish answered that with a 15-play, 80-yard drive that took 6:23 off the clock, Pitt--who had gotten to the red zone on both of its first two series--Sunseri was intercepted on the third series. Mike Shanahan, the intended receiver on the play, slipped.
"Great throw by Tino, great read," Wannstedt said. "Mike falls down."
Notre Dame had things clicking again, looking to go up 21-3. Crist hit true freshman T.J. Jones for a gain of 32 on the first play, to get Notre Dame at the Pitt 8. Instead, they started committing mistakes similar to the ones Pitt has been committing this year--missing receivers in the end zone, and committing penalties. After two incompletions by Crist--including one that was challenged, with a ruling that stood--Chas Alecxih came through with a sack, Pitt's second of the game. Notre Dame had to settle for the field goal, yet led 17-3 with 2:11 left.
One more time, Pitt drove deep into Notre Dame territory. They got as far as the Notre Dame 19. Though Sunseri had a good first half, and finished with his best show of the year, in the red zone against Notre Dame, he was 1-of-4 passing, with a total of five yards in the first half.
"Different things," Wannstedt said, when asked why his team couldn't capitalize in the red zone, early on. "We fall down once in the end zone. We had one ball that Cam (Saddler) had a chance to catch in the back of the end zone and it was probably inches from being catchable."
Instead of getting another three points to trim the deficit, Pitt missed another field goal. Technically, the play won't go down as a missed field goal, because holder Andrew Janocko mishandled the hold.
"(Janocko) spun the ball and he lost control of it," Wannstedt said. "He's been doing it for four years. And (Hutchins) is as good a dependable kicker as we've got, and he just pushed it to the right. Bad day, bad day kicking field goals."
The second half, however, was a different story. On top of making a comeback in the second half, Pitt had its chances to actually win the game.
"It's amazing that we could play that well, taken away by how we played in the first half," linebacker Max Gruder, who led the Panthers with 13 tackles, said. "Whatever it was, we're not playing up to our capabilities in the first half."
Though Notre Dame struck first with a 50-yard field goal from David Ruffer, the Pitt defense tightened up on that first offensive series by the Irish. Pitt went three-and-out of sorts, before another error on special teams. What looked like a poor fake punt attempt, resulted in a one-yard gain by Hutchins. Coming off being named Big East Special Teams Player of the Week, Hutchins had a day Saturday he'd like to forget. Though the Irish were set up in Pitt territory, the Pitt defense tightened up for the first time all game, keyed by a pair of pass breakups form Antwuan Reed and K'Waun Williams. Williams' breakup came on a third down attempt.
Though the Irish still converted the 50-yard field goal, the defense was finally making some plays. Gruder credits it to some minor adjustments made at halftime.
"It was mostly up front," Gruder said. "We changed a couple things, it was mostly up front. It was mostly playing up to our capabilities, but it was some checks to the formations."
Though Pitt was forced to punt on its following drive, they held Notre Dame to a three-and-out on its following drive. It almost went bad for Pitt, as K'Waun Williams was penalized for running into the kicker. Since it wasn't a roughing the kicker, Pitt held on to the ball, and was only pushed back five yards. Overall, Pitt was penalized just three times for 23 yards, while the Irish was penalized six times for 60 yards. Cutting down penalties was a focus all week, and the Panthers responded to that.
With the defense coming up with two big stops, the offense finally answered with a score. Pitt went 77 yards in 10 plays, as Sunseri ran it in on a rollout bootleg from four yards out. Pitt continued to work the quick screen passes--one to Baldwin, and one to Hynoski, which left them facing a 3rd-and-8. Lewis took a short pass from Sunseri in traffic, and turned it into a seven-yard gain. Wannstedt decided to go for it, with 4th-and-1 at the Pitt 32. Lewis converted it, by turning it in to a gain of 30 yards. For the game, Lewis led Pitt with 63 yards on 13 carries.
"It was good to get Dion back in the mix again today," Wannstedt said of Lewis' performance.
Lewis found the hole on the fourth-down play, then took off instead of trying to just make someone miss. After Sunseri hit Street for a 21-yard gain, Pitt ground it out, running four plays, to gain the final 15 yards, including the 4-yard touchdown run by Sunseri.
Pitt later scored on a three-play drive, which concluded with a 56-yard touchdown pass from Sunseri to Baldwin. Baldwin had a game-high nine catches for 111 yards, including this touchdown pass. Pitt trailed 23-17 with more than seven minutes left in the game. There was plenty of time to make one more defensive stand, then get the ball back for one more shot at the end zone.
During those final seven minutes, Pitt forced two Notre Dame punts. That meant they had the ball twice. What they did with the ball was puzzling. It started off with Cam Saddler letting both Notre Dame punts go, without returning. Dan Turk's first punt landed at the Pitt 10. The second one, at the Pitt 6,
"I've always had a policy with punt returners, that with punt returners, you don't ever question them," Wannstedt said. "We're obviously standing on the 10-yard line, we want to make good decisions; catch the ball. If the ball is uncatchable in their minds and they let it go, then that's a decision they make and I've got to look at it on tape and see if we're making the best decisions."
Pitt started that first drive on its own 10, which resulted in nothing more than a wasted drive. Two runs by Lewis resulted in a total of five yards. On third down, Sunseri's pass intended for Baldwin was tipped by cornerback Robert Blanton. With 3:25 left, Pitt contemplated going for it on fourth down. They called timeout to talk it over. When they took the field again, the punt team came out. With time a factor, Pitt gained five yards on two plays, and wasted a timeout for no reason.
"We knew we were going to try to go for it on fourth down," Wannstedt explained. "And we were trying to get in a manageable fourth down situation. We ended up in a fourth-and-four and punted the ball. Anything over that, if we don't make the first down on that one drive, it's over, the game's over We wanted to give our kids a chance; play defense, stop them, which it worked out. We got the ball back."
Pitt got the ball back on its own six, after letting another punt roll deep into its own territory. The only thing Pitt could muster was a six-yard completion to Shanahan, who finished second behind Baldwin with five catches for 49 yards. Sunseri's first pass--an incompletion where he spiked the ball in the direction of Ray Graham--was challenged by Brian Kelly as a fumble. When the ruling on the field stood, Pitt still had life, as Notre Dame lost a timeout as a result of the failed challenge. Sunseri put one up deep for Baldwin that looked to be intercepted. Even though Pitt's challenge on that play ruled in favor of them, Sunseri's pass for Baldwin was incomplete. It was a valiant part of the players, in order to attempt a comeback, but it wasn't meant to be.
"The thing that's so frustrating to me--it kills me--we can play so well," Gruder said. "It's so obvious how well we can play, like how well we played in the second half. All that's taken away by the first half."