Nov. 14, 2009
PITTSBURGH (AP) – In need of a big win, Charlie Weis and Notre Dame couldn’t turn around a troublesome trend. Pitt keeps winning and winning like it hasn’t done in 27 years, and now the Panthers are one more victory away from a really big bowl.
Jonathan Baldwin made two exceptional catches that allowed No. 8 Pittsburgh to open up an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame rallied behind two touchdowns by Golden Tate, but the Panthers held on for a 27-22 victory Saturday night.
Notre Dame (6-4) trailed 27-9 with 12:44 remaining after Dion Lewis’ 50-yard touchdown run, then had a chance to take the lead on its final possession before Jimmy Clausen fumbled with just over two minutes remaining.
“We got a little scare, but we always have confidence in our defense to make a big stop and they did,” Lewis said.
The Irish followed up a 23-21 loss to Navy with their eighth consecutive loss to a top-10 team – the longest streak in school history. Weis is 1-10 against ranked teams since 2006, and has the same record (35-25) as former coach Bob Davie and the same winning percentage (.583) as former coach Tyrone Willingham, both of whom were fired.
Pitt relied on big plays by Baldwin and running backs Lewis and Ray Graham to improve to 9-1 for the first time since 1982, Dan Marino’s senior season, and is headed for a Dec. 5 home date against No. 5 Cincinnati that will decide the Big East Conference champion and BCS bowl representative. A Nov. 27 game at rival West Virginia won’t factor into the conference race.
A game the Panthers needed to win for prestige and to remain in the top 10 couldn’t have gone much better for three quarters-plus.
Tate, one of college football’s most dynamic talents, nearly brought the Irish back.
“But when you get down three scores, at the end of the day … ” Weis said.
Tate ended with nine catches for 113 yards in his second 100-yard game against Pitt in as many seasons, though Pitt followed up its 36-33, four-OT win in South Bend last season by outgaining the Irish 429-349.
Called the best player Pitt has faced all season by coach Dave Wannstedt, Tate caught an 18-yard touchdown pass from Clausen to cut it to 27-16 with 9:10 remaining. Tate then ran right up the middle of Pitt’s punt coverage unit on an 87-yard touchdown return less than two minutes later.
That score quieted a raucous crowd of 65,374, including thousands of suddenly nervous students who only minutes before loudly sung their adopted good-luck song, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
Until Tate broke loose, Baldwin upstaged Tate and fellow Notre Dame star receiver Michael Floyd. Despite being matched step for step by defender Darrin Walls, Baldwin stretched out all of his 6 feet, 5 inches to catch Bill Stull’s perfectly thrown 36-yard touchdown catch late in the second half to make it 10-3. Stull went 15 of 27 for 236 yards and no interceptions.
Baldwin then made an even better grab, a soaring 51-yard catch over Walls – like him, a former Pittsburgh-area high school star – to the Irish 29 that led to Dan Hutchins’ second field goal, a 38-yarder, and a 13-3 lead. After the Irish punted, Graham ran through half of the Notre Dame defense on a 53-yard run that led to his 2-yard score one play later.
Baldwin made five catches for 142 yards.
“This was a statement game for him,” Wannstedt said.
Baldwin was more motivated by pre-game promotional commercials on ABC that he felt played up Notre Dame and downplayed the Panthers.
“They probably thought we were going to lose,” he said. “We just wanted to come out and take care of business.”
Lewis, the freshman who ran for 152 yards, took over on the next drive to score from the 50 and make it 27-9, answering’s Clausen’s 1-yard TD sneak on the first play of the fourth quarter. Clausen has pulled off four comeback wins in the fourth quarter this season and, in another frantic fourth, nearly did it again.
The Irish got the ball at their own 20 with 3:39 remaining and had a chance to pull off an improbable comeback, but a 15-yard chop block penalty prevented the drive from taking off and Clausen (27 of 42 for 283 yards, one interception) fumbled while under pressure on a third-and-16 play – one initially ruled an incompletion but reversed on replay.
Weis wasn’t happy with the reversal, saying it seems “the replay officials are the stars” by repeatedly reversing calls.
Notre Dame finally got going on offense after being held to three points in the first half, a week after being shut out by Navy before halftime. Weis wanted to play conservatively and not let Pitt’s multidimensional offense get going, but Pitt’s big lead changed those plans.
“We didn’t want to get into that (a wide-open game) that early,” he said.
Weis isn’t accustomed to his teams not scoring points in Heinz Field. He began his Notre Dame career by beating Pitt 42-21 in 2005, only nine months after his Tom Brady-led Patriots offense rolled past the Steelers 41-27 in the AFC championship game.