Coach Ara Parseghian won 11 straight games versus the Panthers

Notre Dame-Pittsburgh Football 2015: Games Can't Get Closer Than This

Nov. 5, 2015

Game Week Central

By John Heisler

Based on recent events, it’s probably hard to believe–for fans of either Notre Dame or Pittsburgh–that the rivalry once was more than a little one-sided.

During the 11 years that Ara Parseghian served as Irish head coach (1964-74), his Irish won 11 straight games versus the Panthers. In 10 of those 11 games Notre Dame came in ranked ninth (Associated Press) or higher. Only twice in that stretch did the Irish defeat a ranked Pitt squad (31-10 over #20 Pitt in 1973, then 14-10 over #17 Pitt in 1974).

The average score in those 11 games? Notre Dame 41.6 points, Pittsburgh 9.0 points.

Maybe the most disparate contest took place in 1968 at Notre Dame Stadium where the Irish came in ranked 12th at 5-2 and the Panthers stood 1-6 on the way to 1-9. Notre Dame senior quarterback Terry Hanratty (from Butler, Pennsylvania, about 40 miles due north of Pittsburgh) didn’t play due to injury, giving way to sophomore Joe Theismann.

It didn’t matter.

The Irish led 49-0 at halftime. Notre Dame had outgained the Panthers 399-32 in total yards. The Irish had 23 first downs–to two for Pitt. Notre Dame had run 52 plays–to 20 for the Panthers. By halftime Theismann already had thrown for two touchdowns and run for two more.

The two head coaches–Parseghian and Pitt’s Dave Hart–agreed to a continuous clock after halftime. The 34 plays run by the Irish in the second half were all running plays. Notre Dame won 56-7, with Pitt’s lone score coming when the Irish fumbled away the second-half kickoff.

Boy, have things changed since then.

Fast forward a half-century and the rivalry can’t be more competitive. Notre Dame has split its last six games against Pitt, with those six decided by a combined 27 points (an average margin of 4.5)–and with none of those games decided by more than seven points (two of those went to overtime). How close has this rivalry become? Those six straight matchups all decided by a TD or less represent the only time in Notre Dame history that the Irish have faced an opponent six straight times and had each game decided by seven points or fewer. Meanwhile, on the Pittsburgh side in 2015, each of the last six games the Panthers have played this season has been decided by seven points or fewer.

— Pittsburgh owns 21 victories over the Irish (only USC, Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State have more), and seven of those involve wins by unranked Panther teams over ranked Notre Dame squads.

Four of those games happened in Pittsburgh:

  • 1958–Pittsburgh defeated #14 Notre Dame 29-26 (Pitt finished 5-4-1)
  • 1975–Pitt defeated #9 Notre Dame 34-20 (Tony Dorsett ran for 303 yards)
  • 1987–Pitt defeated #4 Notre Dame 30-22 (Irish starting quarterback Terry Andrysiak broke his collarbone during the game and Tony Rice took over)
  • 2013–Pitt defeated #24 Notre Dame 28-21

Three other games happened at Notre Dame Stadium:

  • 1952–Pitt defeated #8 Notre Dame 22-19 (Pitt finished 6-3)
  • 1983–Pitt defeated #18 Notre Dame 21-16 (Pitt finished 8-3-1, losing to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl)
  • 2004–Pitt defeated #24 Notre Dame 41-38 (Pitt finished 8-4, losing to Utah in the Fiesta Bowl)

The Panthers posted one other win in Pittsburgh when both teams were ranked:

  • 1936–#9 Pitt defeated #7 Notre Dame 26-0 (Pitt finished 8-1-1)

Pitt also defeated the Irish two times in Notre Dame Stadium when both teams were rated:

  • 1937–#3 Pittsburgh defeated #12 Notre Dame 21-6 (Pitt finished 8-2)
  • 1976–#9 Pitt defeated #11 Notre Dame 31-10 (Pitt finished 12-0 and won the national title after defeating Georgia in the Sugar Bowl)

Arguably the most noteworthy Notre Dame series win came in 1982 at Pitt Stadium against an unbeaten and top-ranked Pittsburgh team led by quarterback Dan Marino. The Irish trailed 13-10 after three periods and then scored three times, including a 76-yard scoring run by freshman tailback Allen Pinkett. The first-year Pitt head coach that year was Foge Fazio who later joined Lou Holtz’s staff as a Notre Dame assistant. The 31-16 Irish victory marked the most points scored all year by Notre Dame. After that victory in Pittsburgh, the Irish dropped their final three regular-season games of the campaign to finish 6-4-1.

— The Irish this year are in the exact position they were in 2014 — in both seasons Notre Dame headed into its final four games standing 7-1 and ranked eighth nationally.

— No quarterback in history has thrown more passes against Notre Dame than Pittsburgh’s Alex Van Pelt (with 163). Here are his career numbers versus the Irish:

1989–16 of 33 for 170 yards, 3 int., 1 TD
1990–37 of 51 for 384 yards, 2 int., 2 TDs
1991–22 of 37 for 207 yards, 1 int., 1 TD
1992–25 of 42 for 246 yards, 1 int., 2 TDs
Career–100 of 163 for 1,007 yards, 7 int., 6 TDs

— No running back in history has gained more yards against Notre Dame than Pittsburgh’s Tony Dorsett (with 754). Here are his career numbers against the Irish:

1973–29 carries for 209 yards
1974–22 carries for 61 yards
1975–23 carries for 303 yards (the most rushing yards gained by an individual in a single game against Notre Dame; Pitt rushed for 411 as a team, also the most ever against the Irish)
1976–22 carries for 181 yards
Career–96 carries for 754 yards

— Here’s what happened the previous two times an Irish football team started 7-1 by winning its first four games, losing its fifth, then winning its sixth and seventh:

Year Final Record Final AP Ranking
1916 8-1
1972 8-3 14th (Orange Bowl)

Here’s how 14 other Notre Dame teams finished that started 7-1 (no matter when the defeat occurred). Seven of these teams played in bowl games (three wins) and six finished in the Associated Press top 10:

Year Final Record Final AP Ranking
1908 8-1
1915 7-1
1921 10-1
1932 7-2
1954 9-1 4th
1955 8-2 9th
1965 7-2-1 9th
1974 10-2 6th (Orange Bowl champion)
1977 11-1 1st (Cotton Bowl champion)
1987 8-4 17th (Cotton Bowl)
1990 9-3 6th (Orange Bowl)
1991 10-3 13th (Sugar Bowl champion)
1998 9-3 22nd (Gator Bowl)
2006 10-3 17th (Sugar Bowl)

— The eight teams Notre Dame has played so far in 2015 stand a combined 36-28. The seven Irish wins have come over teams that are a combined 28-28, including 7-1 Temple and 6-1 Navy. The four teams remaining on the Irish slate are a combined 19-15, including 7-1 Stanford and 6-2 Pittsburgh.

This week’s NCAA toughest schedule numbers (no games versus non-FBS teams are included) show Notre Dame’s cumulative schedule ranking tied for 37th (46-36 for .561), its past schedule 31st (31-21 for .596) and its future schedule 63rd (15-15 for .500).

Notre Dame’s last five games (including this week vs. Pitt) are against teams that are a combined 32-7: Clemson 8-0, Navy 6-1, USC 5-3, Temple 7-1 and Pitt 6-2.

— Former ESPN college football analyst Beano Cook was the sports information director at Pitt from 1956 through 1966.

John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame.

Heisler produces a weekly football commentary piece for titled “Sunday Brunch,” along with a Thursday football preview piece. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series. Here is a selection of other features published recently by Heisler:

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— Jim McLaughlin: New Irish Volleyball Boss Is All About the Numbers:

— Men’s Soccer Establishes Itself with Exclamation:

— Australia Rugby Visit Turns into Great Sharing of Sports Performance Practices:

— Bud Schmitt Doesn’t Need a Map to Find Notre Dame Stadium:

— Sunday Brunch: Holy Smokes, Irish Beat USC!

— Community Service a Record-Setting Event for Irish Athletics in 2014-15: