For the second consecutive week, Pitt had a lead in the fourth quarter. And for the second consecutive week, the Panthers were unable to hold on, as Notre Dame staged a comeback effort to beat Pitt 15-12 at Heinz Field on Saturday.
But unlike last week's loss to Iowa, when Pitt blew a 24-3 second-half lead, Saturday's defeat was a different kind of animal. Rather than simply falling apart in the fourth quarter as the Panthers did in Iowa City, the loss to Notre Dame was a result of missed opportunities.
"We just didn't score enough points today and we had too many negative yardage plays," head coach Todd Graham said after the game.
The missed opportunities were present from the start. Pitt's defense forced and recovered a fumble to give the offense possession at the Notre Dame 26, but a false start and a sack pushed the Panthers back 10 yards and they had to settle for a field goal.
That trend continued throughout the day. Pitt's offense was charged with six total penalties, took six sacks, and had two runs stopped for loss. In total, the Panthers' offense lost 84 yards on those 14 negative plays.
"Our goal going into the game was to not turn the football over; we didn't turn the football over and we came up three points short," Graham said. "Too many negative-yardage plays on offense that killed drives."
And on one occasion when the offense did drive the ball deep into Notre Dame territory with a first down at the 11, a false start and two negative runs forced the Panthers to settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown.
"What hurt us was the penalties; we have to cut out the penalties," redshirt junior quarterback Tino Sunseri said. "We were doing a lot of stuff to get us back, and we have to make sure that we're moving forward. It's hard to overcome those negative plays. We're third-and-15, we're second-and-18; those are hard downs to convert."
Perhaps the most painful negative plays for Pitt came on the Panthers' final drive. Trailing by three, Pitt took the ball at its own 20 and drove across midfield. But Sunseri was swarmed by three Notre Dame defenders on first-and-10 from the 40, and two plays later he was ruled down for an 11-yard loss to set up fourth-and-26 from the Pitt 44.
Sunseri's last-ditch heave for Mike Shanahan on fourth down, Pitt's final hope in the game, fell incomplete.
"The last drive, I felt like we were in great shape," Graham said. "I felt really good. Then we took a sack."
The defense had its own share of missed opportunities as well, with three chances for interceptions on Notre Dame's first drive of the game and five quarterback hurries but only two sacks.