South Bend, Ind. - Among fact-based football cliches, the "60-minute game" reigns supreme. It's a phrase based in simple truth - there are, in fact, 60 minutes in a football game - and larger football lessons. The flaw in the cliche is that it devalues the impact of momentum-changing plays and the importance of maximizing opportunities.
After Pitt's 23-17 loss to Notre Dame in South Bend on Saturday, Dave Wannstedt invoked the cliche.
"As I sit back and look on it, Notre Dame did a good job," Wannstedt said during his post-game press conference. "They're a good football team. To beat a team like this, we've got to play well in three phases for 60 minutes and we didn't do it."
To wit, Pitt was allowed 17 points and scored just three in the first half before bouncing back to outscore Notre Dame 14-6 after halftime. The Panthers did not play a 60-minute game, but the basis of their loss was not an incomplete performance:
It was an inability to capitalize in key situations and maximize opportunities.
Throughout the first half, Pitt's offense looked more effective than it has all season, gaining 188 yards and 12 first downs. But that superlative performance only held between the 20's, as the Panthers were unable to produce once they reached the red zone.
Pitt drove the ball inside the Notre Dame 20 three times in the first half, but had to settle for a field goal attempt each time. Making matters worse, Dan Hutchins connected just once in the first half. His second attempt went wide right, and his third attempt never happened after Andrew Janocko bobbled the snap.
The failed red-zone conversions left Pitt in a 17-3 hole at halftime, but the opportunities continued to present themselves in the third quarter. The Panthers took the ball to start the second half, but the offense went three-and-out on its first two possessions while Notre Dame scored a field goal to extend its lead to 17.
After Pitt finally scored to put the score at 20-10 in the third quarter, the defense stepped up and forced Notre Dame to punt. But the special teams failed to capitalize, as Cam Saddler caught the punt at the Pitt 9 and was tackled for a two-yard loss. It was the first of three consecutive Notre Dame punts that pinned the Panthers at or behind their own 10, all in the final 16 minutes of the game.
The offense battled back, though, cutting Notre Dame's lead to 23-17 with a 56-yard touchdown pass from Tino Sunseri to Jonathan Baldwin, and the defense did its part, forcing a Notre Dame punt on the ensuing drive. But Saddler declined to field the punt, and the Irish downed the ball at the Pitt 10.
Facing a six-point deficit and holding all three timeouts with just under five minutes remaining in the game and 90 yards of real estate to cover, the Pitt offense went to its bread-and-butter: the run game. But Dion Lewis was stopped for three yards on first down and two yards on second down, and the fourth-down pass was deflected for an incompletion.
The situation was virtually repeated on the next series, as a strong defensive stand led to a misplayed punt, which led to poor field position and a drive that went nowhere.
The failed red-zone attempts, rampant special teams miscues - misplayed punts a missed field goal, a bobbled field-goal hold, and an ill-fated fake punt - and the ineptitude on the most crucial drive of the game are all reminiscent of a theme that is becoming all common in Pitt's 2010 campaign:
Missed opportunities. From the season-opening loss at Utah to the demoralizing blowout loss to Miami at Heinz Field and now to Pitt's most recent defeat, the Panthers' season thus far has been marked by a number of troubling traits, but none are more problematic than the inability to capitalize on opportunities.
Football is a game of creating opportunities and then maximizing those opportunities. Pitt has done an okay job of the former, but an inadequate job of the latter.