Sept. 3, 2005
PITTSBURGH (AP) – Notre Dame hired Charlie Weis exactly for this. The innovative and imaginative offense. The confused looks on the faces of the opposing defense. And, yes, all those points on the scoreboard.
Brady Quinn ran Weis’ Patriots-perfect offense like a college version of Tom Brady, leading touchdown drives on five of underdog Notre Dame’s first six possessions Saturday in a 42-21 rout of No. 23 Pitt that was over by halftime.
The anticipated matchup of two former NFL coaches turned college head coaches – Weis, the former New England offensive wizard, vs. Dave Wannstedt, a one-time defensive coordinator and the former coach of the Bears and Dolphins – was as big as mismatch as the final score.
Pitt’s defense, effectively the same as that which allowed nearly 420 yards per game even while going 8-4 last season, had no answer for Quinn’s Weis-designed five-receiver sets, screen passes to running backs, and throws to big tight ends isolated against small cornerbacks.
Except for one interception, Quinn couldn’t have run the Irish offense much better while going 18-of-27 for 233 yards and two touchdowns, one to running back Darius Walker for 51 yards on Notre Dame’s first score and another to Jeff Samardzija for 19 yards. Notre Dame outgained Pitt 502-323, helped by a 275-103 edge in rushing largely accumulated after building a big lead.
Walker, coming off a strong freshman season in which he rushed for 821 yards, carried 20 times for 100 yards and a 2-yard touchdown that started Notre Dame’s decisive 28-point second quarter that made it 35-13 at halftime.
Hired by alma mater Notre Dame before New England’s third Super Bowl victory in four seasons, Weis promised to bring a pro-style offense filled with creative gadgetry that isn’t always seen in college football. At least for one night, he certainly delivered.
The Panthers (0-1) certainly didn’t expect all this, not with 18 starters back from the first team to win at Notre Dame in 19 seasons and most of its famous alumni – Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino, Mike Ditka – gathered to celebrate Wannstedt’s return as head coach.
With a Top 25 ranking, a schedule filled with winnable games and polished playmaker Tyler Palko at quarterback, Pitt expected a big start to an excellent season. Instead, it was a huge letdown, with a sold-out Heinz Field half-empty before the end of the third quarter. Some of those 66,451 fans leaving early could be heard wondering if Pitt was so wise to jettison former head coach Walt Harris, an accomplished offensive coach, after five consecutive bowl seasons.
Wannstedt is the first Pitt coach to lose his debut since Mike Gottfried’s Panthers lost to Maryland 13-10 in 1986, and the most recent comparable loss by a debuting coach was Carl DePasqua’s 42-8 loss to UCLA in 1969.
For Notre Dame, the Weis era opened much like the Ara era. In 1964, new coach Ara Parseghian’s Irish went to Wisconsin to meet a quality opponent that had beaten them the year before in South Bend, and won 31-7. Pitt won at Notre Dame last year, starting the Irish on a season-ending three-game losing streak that led to former coach Tyrone Willingham’s firing.
For Weis, the game was strikingly familiar to his last visit to Heinz Field nine months ago, when after losing to the Steelers convincingly during the season, his Patriots offense manhandled Pittsburgh’s defense in a 41-27 win that wasn’t that close.
This one wasn’t either, even though Pitt opened early leads of 7-0 and 10-7 in probably the Panthers’ most awaited and ballyhooed season opener since new coach Foge Fazio’s 1982 team, led by Marino, edged North Carolina 7-6 in their opener.
Palko (17-of-30, 181 yards, one TD, one interception) didn’t play nearly as well as he did in becoming the first player to throw five touchdown passes against Notre Dame, partly because Notre Dame had the ball so often and scored most of the time it did.
The Panthers didn’t even get the ball until midway through the third quarter following a 20-play Irish drive that ended with Rashon Powers-Neal’s third scoring run of the night, none longer than 9 yards. The Irish overcame a third-and-25 during the drive.
Now, Pitt must be wondering how quickly it can bounce back from this. The Panthers have only five days off before playing again Friday night at Ohio U.
Notre Dame beat Pitt for the 12th time in 14 meetings and the sixth time in their last seven games in Pittsburgh. The Irish also were underdogs when they won there two years ago.