SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Brian Kelly’s baby, his spread offense, was clicking for a half. Notre Dame’s no-huddle was snapping off plays so rapidly that Pitt’s defense was hurrying to get organized. The speed early on was almost dizzying.
But the 17-3 lead the Irish forged by halftime – thanks also to Pitt’s struggles to score from inside the 20 – didn’t end in a comfortable win for Notre Dame. Not that style points mean anything to Kelly.
“Again, got off to a pretty good start offensively, but as we’ve shown, we are really good at stubbing our toe, whether it be a penalty here or a drop here. But that’s us,” Kelly said after the Irish held on to beat the Panthers 23-17 Saturday.
“It’s not a beauty contest yet for us. It’s certainly not that. But my job is to get Notre Dame to win football games and we’re starting to do that.”
Quarterback Dayne Crist passed for a TD and ran for another in the first half, completing 12 straight passes at one point. And the Irish got three field goals from David Ruffer, who stayed perfect in his career (16-for-16) while setting a school record for consecutive makes.
“You can just see the way we operate it, it can be really effective,” Crist said. “We’re happy with the way we were moving the ball while we were in that tempo.”
Still, the Panthers climbed back into it. Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri hit Jon Baldwin on a 56-yard TD to bring the Panthers within 23-17 with 7:23 left.
[photogallerylink id=29967 align=left]Pitt (2-3) got the ball back twice thereafter – at its own 10 with 4:45 to go and again at its 7 with 1:37 remaining. But on its final series, Gary Gray broke up a fourth-down pass intended for Baldwin and Notre Dame (3-3) ran out the clock for its second straight win following a three-game losing streak.
Pitt moved inside the Notre Dame 20-yard line three times in the first half – reaching the 9, the 10 and the 19 – but managed only three points. Dan Hutchins kicked one field goal, missed another and then never got off an attempt in the closing seconds of the half when holder Andrew Janocko fumbled the snap.
“We’re moving the ball. We get down in there. We have to settle for attempted field goals. We don’t finish the drive,” said Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, who’d beaten Notre Dame in thrillers the previous two seasons.
“We don’t punt in the first half, which I thought was a real positive. But we gotta get the ball in the end zone.”
Sunseri, who completed 27 of 39 passes for 272 yards and also ran for a second-half TD, agreed that not cashing in on earlier opportunities cost Pitt a chance at victory.
“We have to come in and understand that we had the game, but we have to capitalize in the red zone whenever we’re down there,” Sunseri said.
Special teams hurt the Panthers again in the second half. Pitt faked a punt on its first possession of the third quarter and Hutchins was stopped short of the first down at the Pitt 34. Ruffer followed by setting the school record with his 15th straight field goal – and 10th in a row this year – by hitting a 50-yarder. Nick Tausch set the record with 14 in a row last season.
Pitt gambled again late in the third and this time it worked.
On a fourth-and-1 from the Pitt 32, Dion Lewis broke off a 30-yard run. After a 21-yard pass to Devin Street, Sunseri carried five yards on third down to get the first down and then skirted left end for a 4-yard TD, cutting Notre Dame’s lead to 20-10 with 3:12 left in the period.
Crist engineered a rapid, 13-play, 77-yard drive in the first quarter as the Irish’s no-huddle spread took off. He completed a 14-yard pass to Theo Riddick, Armando Allen had a 10-yard run, Michael Floyd made a 14-yard reception and then a pass interference call took the ball to the 1 before Crist hooked up with Floyd for the score.
“They had us off balance defensively with the no huddle offense at a faster tempo than we could have ever practiced,” Wannstedt said.
“That kind of got us on our heels a little bit the first half. Defensively, our kids, the second half, they battled to the last play.”
Crist, who finished the opening half 13-for-17, was just getting warmed up. He hit six straight passes during an 80-yard second-quarter that he capped himself with a 10-yard TD run.