A year after 'miracle' win, Irish expect nail-biter vs. Pitt

A year after 'miracle' win, Irish expect nail-biter vs. Pitt
November 8, 2013, 5:15 pm
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PITTSBURGH -- Notre Dame's championship hopes rested on the right foot of Pitt kicker Kevin Harper just over a year ago. Harper lined up for a 33-yard field goal at Notre Dame Stadium that would've sent the Irish to their first loss of 2012, ending their dream of winning a title. 

The kick sailed wide right. That was the first break Notre Dame got. The second was the game's officiating crew not noticing that both Irish No. 2s -- Chris Brown and Bennett Jackson -- were on the field for the missed kick. 

Notre Dame went on to win, 29-26, in triple overtime, and eventually pushed on to the BCS Championship. 

"It was a miracle," defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. "They played their best game against us."

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T.J. Jones watched the kick from the sideline, and all he could think was "uh oh." 

"I wasn't supposed to think it was over," Jones said, "but a chip-shot field goal, most of the time you expect them to make it."

It was the ultimate lesson in Notre Dame having a target on its back. A Pitt team that finished 6-7 took Notre Dame to the wire a week after the Irish vaulted onto the national scene with a 17-point win at Oklahoma. 

On the other side, the biggest takeaway Pitt offensive lineman Matt Rotheram had was that his team could run against an excellent Irish rushing defense. It's worth noting last year, though, that Louis Nix wasn't 100 percent after dealing with an illness leading up to the game.

A parallel exists, then, for Saturday's game: Nix is expected to play, but won't be unleashed after missing Notre Dame's last two games with tendinitis in his knee. 

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Beyond that, Pitt and Notre Dame have engaged in close games each of the last five years, with none of those games being decided by more than a touchdown. But Pitt players aren't buying into last year's near-upset and applying it to Saturday's game, something defensive back K'Waun Williams said that was echoed by Rotheram. 

"We're not thinking about last year's game, we're just thinking about this year's game," Rotheram said. "We're a different team, they're a different team. Approach it like a brand-new game."

Ray Graham is gone from Pitt's backfield, and the Panthers have barely been able to run the ball this year -- their 122 1/2 rushing yards per game ranks 105th out of 125 FBS teams. But Tom Savage is an upgrade over Tino Sunseri at quarterback, and Devin Street and Tyler Boyd are a very effective receiving duo (combined: 85 catches, 1,344 yards, 10 touchdowns). 

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Notre Dame's offensive line will have to account for defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who tops FBS players in tackles for a loss and is fourth in sacks. 

So while Pitt is just 4-4, given the close nature of the last five games and the talent the Panthers do possess, Notre Dame's expecting yet another close game on Saturday.

"They take us down to the wire every year," Jones said. " … It's definitely a tough-fought game every year."