Several storylines emerged in the aftermath of Pitt's 29-26 triple-overtime loss to Notre Dame in South Bend on Saturday, and chief among them was the role the officials played in the game. For instance, Notre Dame benefited from a pass interference penalty on Pitt junior K'Waun Williams early in the fourth quarter. Williams was flagged for interference while the Fighting Irish were attempting to convert a fourth-and-4 from the Pitt 23.
Replay showed the call to be specious, at best, but Notre Dame got a first down from the penalty and scored a touchdown on the next play to cut Pitt's lead to eight points.
"I'll be honest with you: you don't like it even if it's a good (call)," Pitt head coach Paul Chryst said during his weekly press conference Monday. "I didn't like it when they had the first one on him, and even K'Waun said 'That was a good call.'"
The other pass interference on Williams came in the second quarter when Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson threw to the end zone from the Pitt 4. Williams felt he was beat on the play, so he interfered to draw the penalty and prevent the touchdown. Pitt ended up keeping the Irish out of the end zone on the ensuing series of plays, and Notre Dame had to settle for a field goal.
Officials also missed a call on Pitt kicker Kevin Harper's 33-yard field goal attempt in the second overtime period. On that play, Notre Dame cornerback Bennett Jackson and Irish receiver Chris Brown were both on the field goal block team; both players wear jersey No. 2, which should be a penalty.
The proper call would have given Pitt a first down at the Notre Dame 11. Instead, Harper missed the 33-yard field goal, which would have ended the game with a Pitt victory.
Chryst said that Pitt will send film of that play, the pass interference, and more to the Big East for review, as is standard procedure.
"Every week you have a chance to submit calls (to the Big East). We do them to make sure what we're coaching is the right thing, that we're understanding everything we can. There are a lot of things that don't go your way, whether it's playing, officials. There were, what, 200-some plays in that game. We had our opportunities to win that game and we didn't. The biggest thing we can focus on is the things we can control."
Overall, Chryst wasn't interested in accepting excuses on Monday, particularly as it relates to the officiating.
"There were a lot of big plays in that game, and it's our job to find a way to win. I don't care if it's something that the opponent does, something that happens, a call that doesn't go your way, if it's rain, if it's wind; you have to just overcome, and that's how you win games. We didn't do that."
A big sequence
One notable sequence in Pitt's fourth-quarter collapse came with four minutes left in the game. K'Waun Williams had just intercepted a Notre Dame pass in the end zone, giving the Pitt offense a first down at the 20 with an eight-point lead.
The ensuing drive was a three-and-out that took 56 seconds off the clock after an incomplete pass, a muffed shotgun snap, and a check-down pass that lost a yard.
"I thought, more than anything, if we can get a first down and get that going…we certainly didn't want to stop the clock, but we also felt like we needed to get something going offensively," Chryst said Monday. "We hadn't been consistently running the ball, and we thought that we could get a shot there or hit the check-down. Obviously, the way that it played out, you sit there and say, 'Shoot, you didn't make them use a timeout, and what would that have been?' It plays out a lot of different ways.
"That was the idea, to kind of be aggressive but smart. I don't think that we ended up being that in that series, to be honest."
A tough one
Pitt's loss to Notre Dame is now 48 hours in the rearview mirror, and the Panthers have a quick turnaround to Friday night when they will face Connecticut at Rentschler Field. Still, a blown 14-point lead against the top-ranked Irish is a tough pill to swallow, and Chryst said the players were feeling it.
"I thought it really hurt them after the game. Not that you'd say that's good, but it was an appropriate response."
Chryst did say that he liked what he saw from his players.
"We're awfully proud of the guys, the players and coaches and the preparation that went into it, and more importantly how they attacked the day. We made enough plays to make it a good game, and we didn't make enough plays to finish it off. Every time you play, you have a chance to learn from it, and I feel hopeful and confident that we will and can grow from it."
An improving line
Pitt's offensive line faced its toughest challenge of the season on Saturday when it lined up against a strong Notre Dame front-seven. And while Pitt's linemen didn't make every block, they made enough to spring running back Ray Graham for 172 yards, more than any team has gained on the ground against Notre Dame this season.
That included a 55-yard run on Pitt's first offensive snap, and Chryst thought the line grew from there.
"I thought they got in the moment and they played. It was not a perfect game up front. It never is, but they just kept going. That, you appreciate. I think it helped that we had some success early; the first play, Ray had the run, and that gives guys confidence. But more than anything, I thought they prepared well and they went and just played. And that's all you can ask them to do.
"It's a good group, and I think they're getting some chemistry together. They like playing with each other. That was kind of fun to see. They know we have a lot of things we can work on and get better at, but I thought they threw it in there."
More linebacker questions
Pitt had six linebackers available for Saturday's game at Notre Dame: starters Joe Trebitz (middle), Todd Thomas (weak-side), and Eric Williams (strong-side), and reserves Shane Gordon (middle), Nicholas Grigsby (weak-side), and Emmanuel Rackard (strong-side), although Gordon was limited due to a high-ankle sprain.
Turns out Pitt needed Gordon early in the second quarter after Rackard had to leave the goalline package with an injury. Notre Dame had the ball at the Pitt 1 and was facing third-and-goal, and Gordon came on to line up at strong-side linebacker. That was a good thing for Pitt, since Gordon burst into the backfield and tackled Irish running back Theo Riddick for a four-yard loss.
"We lost Rackard in that sequence and he came in," Chryst said of Gordon. "I give him credit: he worked himself to where he could be in that emergency situation. That was an emergency, and he delivered. Hopefully, he can continue to get better so we can get some more snaps out of him."
However, Chryst said that he doesn't think Rackard will be available this week, which means Pitt will have five linebackers at Connecticut, assuming Gordon is healthy. Freshmen Mike Caprara and Devon Porchia made the trip to Notre Dame but did not dress for the game. One or both could be made available if Rackard cannot play and Gordon is still limited.
Friday's game at Connecticut is the first of Pitt's final three contests in the 2012 regular season. The Panthers need at least two wins in the final three games to achieve bowl-eligibility , and while Chryst is very much focused on the present and the tasks at hand, he also knows that the big picture is important, too.
"I don't think you cheapen the game at hand (by talking about the next big picture)," he said. "I think there are moments to do it. There are times in a season to talk about big-picture things, and we are.
"We're in a situation and what a great thing to fight for: another opportunity to play together. I think all of that is real. We'll talk about that stuff, and yet you can still keep your focus on the task at hand because I think it really pertains to the task at hand."
Just as Pitt was preparing to leave for its trip to Notre Dame last week, news broke that three Pitt players - Ray Graham, Devin Street, and Lafayette Pitts - had been charged with simple assault and conspiracy related to an incident alleged to have happened in late October.
Chryst and the Pitt staff and administration opted not to take any disciplinary action with the three players pending an investigation, and Chryst spoke about that for the first time on Monday.
"Friday it all came out; we felt good and fortunate in talking with [Athletic Director Steve Pederson] and the Chancellor's office in making sure that we're doing the right thing for everything," Chryst said. "At this point, with the knowledge that we have and had at the time, we felt like it was the right thing to do. I feel really good…whatever happens, we want the truth to come out. We want to be able to handle everything the right way, and we feel good that we have. We feel good and appreciative of the support and advice and all of the things that go with it, not just from our athletic administration, but also from our school administration. But we want to make sure that we do do right.
"We're always gathering information, or trying to find out. Right now we haven't heard anything more. We're not going to just put our head in the sand on that. If we hear anything, we'll always try to be as proactive as we can."
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