Pitt was plagued by an inability to make big plays when absolutely necessary for the better part of the last two months, but on Saturday night at Heinz Field, the Panthers took several blows from No. 24 Notre Dame and responded with enough plays to win 28-21.
The first half of the game was an exercise in offensive futility, as Pitt quarterback Tom Savage completed 12-of-21 for 102 yards and a touchdown and Notre Dame's Tommy Rees hit on five-of-14 for 115 and a score and the two teams combined for nine punts and a missed field goal on 14 possessions.
Notre Dame struck first with three minutes left in the first quarter when Rees connected with DaVaris Daniels on a 10-yard scoring pass to cap an 83-yard drive. Pitt answered on its first possession of the second quarter as James Conner put up 30 yards on two rushes and two receptions before Savage fired a three-yard pass to Devin Street for the touchdown.
Pitt's scoring drive covered 71 yards, but it was aided by a 15-yard targeting penalty that sent Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt out of the game. Regardless, that 71-yard drive represented the bulk of Pitt's offensive output, as the Panthers managed just 165 of offense in the first half and punted six times on seven drives.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame capitalized on a shanked Pitt punt in the second quarter to take the lead back after Rees and tight end Ben Koyack hit a 38-yard pass to put the ball at the goal line and receiver TJ Jones ran in for the score, giving the Irish a 14-7 score heading into halftime.
The second half provided fireworks, though. On Pitt's second drive of the third quarter, the Panthers methodically marched 69 yards on 13 plays - albeit with the aid of an overdue pass interference penalty - to score on a James Conner two-yard run. But Notre Dame answered right back when Rees and Daniels hooked up for an 80-yard catch-and-run to take the lead once again.
Pitt's offense had a big play in it, too. On the Panthers' ensuing possession, Savage hit Street on a medium pass and the redshirt senior receiver dropped a would-be tackler to take off for a 63-yard scoring play, tying the score one more time.
It looked like Notre Dame's offensive momentum would carry over into the fourth quarter, but redshirt junior safety Ray Vinopal had other ideas. First, Vinopal picked off Rees on a poor throw from the goal line. Then, after Pitt's offense failed to capitalize on the turnover, Vinopal did it again, grabbing Rees' next pass attempt and returning it to the Notre Dame 5.
Two plays later, Conner plowed in from one-yard out to give the Panthers their first lead of the game.
Pitt's defense responded on Notre Dame's ensuing drive, forcing a punt, and the offense went to work trying to eat time from the clock. After three minutes, the Panthers punted back, and it came down to the defense to make a stop. This time, rather than Vinopal, it was Anthony Gonzlaez who came up with a huge deflection to end Notre Dame's last-gasp fourth-down attempt.
For Pitt, Savage finished with 243 yards and two touchdowns on 22-of-35 passing, while Isaac Bennett rushed 17 times for 57 yards and Conner had 35 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries. Tyler Boyd led Pitt receivers with 85 yards on eight catches, while Street had 76 yards and two touchdowns on four catches.
Pitt (5-4 overall, 2-3 ACC) will be back at Heinz Field Saturday to host North Carolina in a conference matchup.
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