PITTSBURGH — In the sterile, dreary bowels of Heinz Field on Saturday night, T.J. Jones shuffled toward the throng of media ready to ask him what went wrong in a 28-21 loss to Pitt. With a look of general disdain on his face, the generally thoughtful Jones was short and blunt with his answers.
"You don't want to go out on an 0-3 streak, so you finish out the season the best you can and you take the bowl game that you get," Jones said.
That's not the kind of legacy this senior class wants to leave, not a year after a number of its members were key contributors on a team that reached the BCS Championship. But Notre Dame is a far cry from 10-2, let alone 12-0.
A month ago, this team set a goal to reach a BCS bowl. Wins over USC and Navy were sloppy, close calls but pushed the Irish toward that goal. Saturday's loss to Pitt vaporized the goal, with bad execution across the board the reason why.
"It's things that we've worked on continuously and thought we eradicated, felt we were completely done with," cornerback Bennett Jackson said, "stupid penalties here and there, and to just come back to it and have it reoccurring, it's aggravating as a team."
"It's another reminder, that if we go back to those old habits it's going to get us beat," offensive lineman Zack Martin said.
By old habits, Martin was alluding to the kind of mistakes that defined September losses to Michigan and Oklahoma (and a near-loss to Purdue, too). The 2011 season, too, was defined by the same sort of mistakes that held Notre Dame to eight wins.
Notre Dame didn't have a margin for error after those losses to Michigan and Oklahoma. It was 6-0 or bust coming out of the bye week, meaning wins over not only Pitt but BYU and Stanford were a necessity.
On paper, Notre Dame is a longshot to beat Stanford — a win on Saturday wouldn't have changed that. But to go into Palo Alto with a tangible goal to play for would've been important for this team. Even if the Irish were to lose, they would've played for something.
Now, Notre Dame has a bye week to collect itself and figure out what it's playing for with two regular season games left.
"If guys think they're going to come in and go through the motions these last two games, it's going to be embarrassing," Martin said.
Losing to Pitt in the manner they did isn't something Irish players and coaches can be proud of. At the least, there's pride on the line for Notre Dame against BYU and Stanford. But that's about it.
It's not a BCS bowl, but it's something.
"We play for ourselves," Jackson said. "At the end of the day, you play for yourselves, you play for the university. We're just going to go out and try to win every game that's in front of us."