It Pitt was going to break its two-game losing streak and preserve any chance of reaching a bowl this season, the Panthers had to do something rather simple in concept but increasingly difficult over the last five games:
They had to make plays.
That's a football cliché, but that doesn't mean it's not based in truth, and the inability to capitalize on opportunities cost Pitt against Virginia Tech, Navy and Georgia Tech. So as the Panthers squared off against Notre Dame last night at Heinz Field, the theme was the same: they had to make plays when necessary.
And that was exactly what they did in upending the No. 24 Irish 28-21.
Not the least of Pitt's big plays was Ray Vinopal's trio of takeaways, including an interception in the end zone, a forced fumble near the goal line and a second interception that the redshirt junior returned to the Notre Dame 5 to set up Pitt's game-winning touchdown.
"The coaches always had a good game plan and all week just fed us tips to put us in the position to make the plays that I made today," Vinopal said after the game.
Saturday night's game was a redemption of sorts for Vinopal, who has taken his fair share of criticism this season due to a series of inconsistent performances. But his play epitomized what the team as a whole did throughout the evening.
After the offense manufactured its first 14 points with a pair of extended, methodical drives (23 plays in all), Tom Savage and company knew it needed to turn up its performance as Notre Dame matched every Pitt score with a touchdown of its own. So when the Irish re-took the lead 21-14 in the third quarter on an 80-yard catch-and-run by TJ Jones just one play after Pitt had tied the score, the Panthers knew that they needed to respond.
Of course, they have had more than a few situations this season where they needed to respond. After Navy scored to tie Pitt 21-21 in the fourth quarter last month, the offense went three-and-out, and the Midshipmen put together a game-winning field goal drive on the next possession.
Last week in Atlanta, Pitt scored on its first drive of the second half to cut Georgia Tech's lead to 14-10, and the defense recovered a fumble to help swing momentum fully to the Panthers. But once again the offense could only manage a three-and-out on the ensuing possession and never reached the end zone again en route to a 21-10 loss.
With those failures fresh in the team's collective memory, then, the offense took the field after Notre Dame's 80-yard score facing an opportunity to either recapture momentum or lose it for the rest of the game.
"We all looked at each other on the sideline and kind of said, 'This is the time; It's time to go out there and answer,'" Savage said after the game. "I think we were due."
On first down Savage threw a low pass to Tyler Boyd for six yards, and Isaac Bennett gained a fresh set of downs with a six-yard run on second down. Then, on first down from the Pitt 37, Savage threw to Devin Street, who shook a Notre Dame defender and took off down the right sideline for a 63-yard touchdown that might go down as one of the biggest plays of the season.
With that, the score was tied and momentum was swinging back to the Panthers.
"Usually it's down, usually guys will be quiet and just put their heads down," Street said when asked how the team has responded in the past to momentum swings. "But everyone was like, 'Let's go. It's only one play.' We moved on to the next play and we finished. That was the key word today: finish."
After the 63-yard touchdown, Vinopal took over. Notre Dame drove to the Pitt 4 before the redshirt junior safety intercepted Tommy Rees on a terrible decision in the end zone. And while Pitt's offense had to punt on the ensuing drive, Vinopal came up big again when he picked off Rees at the Notre Dame 45 and returned it to the 5.
Two plays later, James Conner ran in from one-yard out, and the Panthers had the momentum and the game.
"I think that's the most important thing about this win," Savage said. "You leave some of those games in the past and go, 'Oh, we could have won those.' But the fact that we just went out there and did it…it's a lot harder to do it than to sit in the film room and say, 'Oh, we would have won if we did that play right." But we actually just went out there and I'm just happy for this team and this program. I think it's a huge win for us.
"We knew that we were capable of this; we just had to go out and do it."
Street agreed about how big Saturday night's win can be for the team.
"I think we knew we could do it, but we didn't truly believe in it. I think tonight we actually believed in it. We believed in ourselves and we finally did it now, so now we know what that's like, so if we get into this situation again, we'll be able to respond."
Now Pitt is 5-4 overall and 2-3 in the ACC with three games remaining. The Panthers will be back at Heinz Field next Saturday to host conference foe North Carolina.
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