SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Down 20-6 in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame was going to need some big plays and a little luck to stay undefeated and keep its national title hopes alive.
It got just enough of both.
Everett Golson scored on a quarterback sneak in the third overtime and the fourth-ranked Fighting Irish came back from a 14-point deficit Saturday to beat Pittsburgh 29-26.
“We overcame a lot tonight. We overcame some uncharacteristic mistakes,” coach Brian Kelly said. “Last year that would have been a loss. But our team kept fighting, kept playing.”
Notre Dame (9-0) is off to its best start since 1993, when it finished the season ranked No. 2. Pitt (4-5) missed a potential game-winning field goal in overtime.
Kelly pulled Golson late in the second quarter because he was missing reads and progressions. But the coach put Golson back in after backup Tommy Rees threw an interception and the Irish fell behind by two touchdowns.
“Our quarterback needed to be out there mobile, make some plays outside the pocket — asked him if he was ready to go, he said he was and we put him back in,” Kelly said.
Golson threw an 11-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter as Notre Dame cut Pitt’s lead to 20-12. Notre Dame’s chances for a comeback appeared to end when Pitt cornerback K’Waun Williams intercepted a pass by Golson in the end zone.
But the Irish defense held, and Golson completed a 45-yard pass to DaVaris Daniels at the Pitt 5. Golson then threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Theo Riddick and ran in for the two-point conversion to tie the game.
Kelly gave the game ball to Golson.
“I think I did a great job of leading the team coming down the stretch. Coming out today we came out a little flat. As far as me personally, I missed a couple reads I should have had. Instead of putting three points on the board you put six,” Golson said. “But I feel like in the stretch we really came together.”
Notre Dame avoided the fate of the 2002 team, the last Irish team to start a season 8-0, which was upset by Boston College 14-7. But just barely. A victory seemed unlikely when they fell behind 20-6 late in the third quarter, again when Williams intercepted Golson’s pass in the end zone and yet again when running back Cierre Wood fumbled as he attempted to dive into the end zone in the second overtime and Pitt safety Jarred Holley recovered.
But the Irish kept finding life, the last time when Kevin Harper missed a 33-yard field goal wide right following Wood’s fumble.
“We missed a field goal, that’s why we lost the game,” Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri said.
Golson was 23 of 42 passing for 227 yards and rushed for 74 yards as well, as he kept the Pitt defense off balance. The Irish needed his big plays to overcome a stellar performance from Pitt’s Ray Graham, who rushing for 172 yards, including runs of 55 and 48 yards.
Graham continually ran through Notre Dame tackles and the Panthers opened a lead by taking advantage of Irish mistakes.
Graham, one of three Pitt players allowed to play despite facing misdemeanor charges, gave the Panthers a 10-6 lead when he ran past an attempted tackle by Notre Dame safety Matthias Farley and sprinted along the sideline for the score.
‘ It was just the second rushing touchdown allowed by the Irish defense this season.
The Panthers were hoping to follow in the footsteps of the 2007 Pitt team, which was 4-7 when it won 13-9 at No. 2 West Virginia on Dec. 1 to knock the Mountaineers out of the national championship game. But this time they just couldn’t find a way to hold on.
All five Notre Dame home games this season have been decided by a touchdown or less, while the four games away from Notre Dame have been decided by an average margin of 28 points.
Kelly had urged his team to play better at home, but they continued to make mistakes. He told the Irish they had to play better against Boston College, Wake Forest and Southern California.
“I told them that they have to understand that everybody they play against will play their absolute best. Next week BC will play out of their minds against us. Wake Forest will. They can’t just highlight certain teams on their schedule because they will play their best,” he said. “I think that’s a lesson learned.”
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o said he was just relieved the Irish won.
“It was ugly at times, beautiful at times. It’s college football,” he said. “I’m just glad the outcome was the way it was.”