PITTSBURGH (KDKA/AP) — Four weeks into the season and Todd Graham continues to look for his first signature win as head coach of the Pitt Panthers.
For a while on Saturday afternoon – just like last week against Iowa – it seemed within reach, but the Panthers could not finish the job against a Notre Dame team that did not look especially good until their game-winning 85-yard drive.
Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees shrugged off a miserable start to hit tight end Tyler Eifert on a 6-yard touchdown pass with less than 7 minutes to go. It lifted Notre Dame to a 15-12 win over the Panthers.
The score and subsequent two-point conversion – also to Eifert – capped 4:40 of perfection from Rees as the Irish (2-2) won their second straight.
Rees went 8-for-8 on the game-winning drive, remaining patient even as the Panthers (2-2) bottled up Notre Dame wide receiver Michael Floyd.
Rees finished 24 of 41 for 216 yards with a touchdown and an interception and running back Jonas Gray scored on a 79-yard touchdown run for Notre Dame, which overcame eight penalties and two costly turnovers.
Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri threw for 165 yards and a score but was sacked twice on his final drive to snuff out a late rally as the program’s eventful week ended with a thud.
The Panthers were hoping to not only give Graham his first signature win at the school but also to prove that Pitt’s announcement about was bolting the Big East for the ACC in three years wasn’t a distraction.
Instead, the Panthers ended up letting a second-half lead slip away for the second week in a row. Last weekend a 21-point advantage at Iowa turned into a 31-27 loss.
Still, the Panthers had a chance thanks to a defense that bullied the Irish for long stretches. Notre Dame, which began the day tied for last in the country with 13 turnovers, only gave it away twice against the Panthers, but both were costly.
Rees took a shot in the first quarter and ended up fumbling to set up a Pitt field goal. He later threw an interception at the Pitt goal line in the second quarter to cut short a lengthy Notre Dame drive.
When it mattered, however, Rees delivered, showcasing why he took the starting job away from senior Dayne Crist three weeks ago. The youthful mistakes he’s mixed in between flashes of solid play disappeared in the fourth quarter.
Eifert caught four passes on the clinching drive, including an 18-yard gain that gave Notre Dame a first down at the Pitt 9. He landed hard on the play but brushed off the trainers and immediately caught a 3-yard pass then followed it up by holding onto a laser from Rees, who split a pair of Pitt defenders and found Eifert just past the goal line.
Pitt had one last chance and drove to Notre Dame 40 before going backward.
Aaron Lynch sacked Sunseri on first down and Prince Shembo racked up Notre Dame’s fifth and final sack on third down, setting the Panthers up with a fourth-and-26.
Sunseri’s pass to Mike Shanahan was incomplete and Rees came on to lead the Irish to one more first down and run out the clock.
Ray Graham ran for 82 yards and added 43 yards receiving for Pitt, but the Panthers could do little else. Sunseri, who has struggled getting the ball downfield, didn’t complete a pass longer than 18 yards.
Cierre Wood ran 23 times for 96 yards for Notre Dame, but it was Gray who provided the big play. The senior sprinted 79 yards down the sideline in the second quarter for his first career score, the school’s longest rush since Terrance Howard darted 80 yards against West Virginia in 2000.
It was the lone explosive play in a game where yards and momentum were in short supply.
Penalties were not, however, as both teams were flagged a combined 17 times, none bigger than a roughing the kicker call against the Irish at the start of the second half.
It turned a Pitt fourth-and-20 into a first down and extended what turned into a 19-play drive that ended more than 8 minutes later with Sunseri finding tight end Hubie Graham for a 3-yard touchdown to put Pitt up 12-7.