Pitt had its chances to take the lead over Notre Dame. Notre Dame had its chances to make it a wider margin.
It ended with a 28-21 win for Pitt, in a wild second half that saw both teams combine for four second-half touchdowns. It was a reversal of fortunes for both teams in the second half. Both teams combined for nine punts in the first half. The third quarter made it an interesting game, as three touchdowns were scored in a span of 1:35.
"That was a good win," head coach Paul Chryst said afterwards. "I appreciate what the players and coaches did. We were able to do enough things tonight to win. It was a great atmosphere and it was fun. I know it fueled our kids."
Pitt gets back on track, after dropping its last two games. The Panthers improve to 5-4 on the season. With three regular-season games remaining, Pitt needs to win at least one to remain bowl-eligible for a sixth season in a row.
Notre Dame drops to 7-3 on the season. The Irish are assured of a bowl game somewhere. Tonight's loss likely eliminates them from a BCS berth.
Ray Vinopal was the hero for Pitt. He came up with a forced fumble and a pair of interceptions.
"He played a great game, just a great game," fellow safety Jason Hendricks said afterwards. "He kept his head up because he gave up a pass but he just kept playing and erased it from his memory and made some big plays for us."
Tom Savage completed 22-35 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns, as he threw to eight different receivers. Tyler Boyd led the way with eight catches for 85 yards, followed by Devin Street with three catches for 72 yards, including two touchdowns.
Tommy Rees completed 18-39 passes with 318 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. T.J. Jones was the favorite target with six catches for 149 yards, a touchdown through the air and a touchdown on the ground.
It wasn't a good offensive performance by either team in the first half. Even with more scoring and better execution in the second half, there were still a fair share of mistakes, mainly the two interceptions by Rees.
Notre Dame got on the board first to take a 7-0 lead, but not after a laughable start to the game.
Pitt actually held the Irish on its first two drives. The Irish went three-and-out on its opening series, which included a pair of dropped passes.
That's when special teams came into play. Pitt held the Irish on its second drive. Instead of punting, Kyle Brindza attempted a 55-yard field goal. The field goal was short of the uprights. Kevin Weatherspoon actually went back to field the missed kick. He would have been eligible to return the ball, had it not been for stepping out of bounds at the back of the end zone.
Continuing with the special teams theme, Matt Yoklic punted 37 yards to the Notre Dame 17. It wasn't the greatest punt in the world, but the thought was to pin Notre Dame deep in their own territory, or in this case, their own 20.
Pitts gave Pitt a little bit of a spark, returning the ensuing kick 50 yards to midfield. The offense couldn't get anything going. An incompletion on first down set up a second-and-ten. Street got just two yards on a run, which set up a third-and-eight. It wasn't so much the yardage, as much as it was Pitt setting itself up with second- and third-and-long situations--a problem that has plagued the offense all year.
Pitt did get on the board in the second quarter, as Savage hit Street for a three-yard touchdown pass. The touchdown pass was the result of a 10-play, 71-yard drive. Savage was a perfect 5-5 for 48 yards on the drive, completing three passes--all first downs--to a running backs, on short dump offs over the middle.
A key point of the game occurred on this drive, as Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt was ejected for a hit on Savage. The play was reviewed, as it was ruled that not only did Tuitt lead with his head, he also made contact with the crown of his helmet.
"[Savage] was giving himself up to go down," national officiating coordinator Rogers Redding tweeted during the game. "The contact was to the head/neck area. Rule says "when in question, it is a foul."
Notre Dame looked to answer that touchdown quickly. After a 34-yard run from George Atkinson III, the Irish wanted to go for another big play. Rees went deep for Jones, connecting for a gain of 34 yards on the play. However, Vinopal was there for the strip. Pitts fell on the loose ball. Pitt saved a touchdown.
Unfortunately, that's all it was for Pitt. The turnover only saved a touchdown. The Panthers went three-and-out.
Rees went back to the air, going deep for Ben Koyack on a 39-yard touchdown, who was defended by Vinopal on the play. Vinopal was also flagged for pass interference. The play was reviewed, as it was determined that Koyack bobbled the ball at the half yard-line, and was down just short of the goal line.
It only delayed the inevitable, as Jones ran it in from a yard out, two plays later. Notre Dame led 14-7 with 6:34 left in the first half.
Pitt tied the game up at 14-14, after James Conner ran it in from two yards out. The key play was a pass interference call on Notre Dame's Bennett Jackson, defending Street in the end zone. The biggest difference for Pitt on this drive, converting short-yardage situations in both the running and passing games.
It was a 13-play, 69-yard drive for Pitt. It took 6:13 off the clock. More importantly, Pitt had six plays on the drive that went for first downs that were six yards or fewer.
Sounds odd, but a big reason for Pitt's struggles on offense this season have been because of second-and-long or third-and-long situations. Getting into those second-and-short or third-and-short situations, let alone converting them, proved to be good for the Panthers.
But, as they did earlier, Rees got the lead back for his team. It only took one play, as Rees went 80 yards to Jones for his second total touchdown of the day. Jones got behind is man, K'Waun Williams. With no presence from the safeties, it was a foot race. Notre Dame regained the lead, 21-14, in just 18 seconds.
Pitt answered. Savage connected with Devin Street for a 63-yard touchdown. Though the Panthers included a pair of running plays, unlike Rees just putting the ball up on the first play, they answered the Irish, tying the game at 21-21 with 2:21 left in the third. It only took 1:17 to go 75 yards on three plays.
"It was a great dial up by Coach Chryst and we just executed it," Street said. "It was all about the dial up."
There were a total of three touchdowns scored between both teams in the first 41:47 of the game, the same number of touchdowns scored in this span of 1:35 in the third quarter.
It looked like Notre Dame was going to regain the lead early in the fourth quarter. Rees, with excellent protection, rolled to his right. He had time. He had receivers. Instead, he threw to a wide-open Vinopal, who read Rees' motion the whole time.
"I was playing a zone in that half of the field," Vinopal said. "Our linebacker Shane Gordon did an awesome job getting underneath [Rees]. The linebackers hold off the middle throw, so the quarterback has to put air under the ball. He did an awesome job. It gives the safeties time to get there."
With Vinopal's interception in the end zone, Pitt took over on its own 20. Savage completed two passes, including a 17-yarder to Boyd, that got the Panthers to midfield. Unfortunately, the drive stalled because of a bizarre play. Savage was stripped of the ball and sacked on a third-and-nine. The ball was still in play, but there was no whistle. Bennett made a heads-up play, falling on the ball, but for a loss of 16 on the play.
Despite having to punt to the Irish again, it was Vinopal to the rescue again. On the second play of the drive, he picked off Rees for the second time in as many drives. Only this time, Vinopal returned the interception for a gain of 40 to the Notre Dame 5.
Conner took it in for his second rushing score of the game, as Pitt regained the lead at 28-21, with 9:36 remaining.
"We've got to enjoy tonight and tomorrow and take it and go forward," Chryst added. "It was a good win to get. We'll play out the year and see what happens."