And the last thing he said to me — “Rock,” he said — sometime, when the team is up against it — and the breaks are beating the boys — tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper… -from Knute Rockne’s “Gipper” speech
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, Amen. –from the “Hail Mary”
There are indeed a lot of words that can be written about Notre Dame‘s 29-26 triple-overtime win over Pittsburgh, but perhaps none sum it up as succinctly as that one. Except perhaps the two heard throughout the crowd when the game finally went final.
“Maybe [we took] this week lightly a little bit,” receiver TJ Jones said when it was all over. “Thinking maybe we could not play our A game, maybe play our B game and still get the W.” And right from the start, it was pretty clear that the clean Irish team that stunned Oklahoma on the road with only one penalty for five yards was not the same one who showed up Saturday, when Notre Dame was flagged for five infractions before the first quarter was over.
Then note those three Irish turnovers (Pitt committed none), two of which occurred in the Pitt end zone. Couple this with a season high number of missed tackles, mostly on Ray Graham, the standout Panther running back who ran through the usually-stout Irish rush defense for 172 yards on 24 carries. Finally, add in not only a crucial Kyle Brindza missed field goal but a missed extra point, and there’s no way Notre Dame could win.
Except they did.
Yes, the Irish overcame all the bad breaks and ugly mistakes that Rockne once spoke about, but they needed some help. The first “aid” came from the press box, when someone up there picked just the right song—the “Rudy” movie theme—to pick up a dejected home crowd as they were half-heartedly hoping a fumble call on Irish receiver DaVaris Daniels (who led the team with six receptions) would be overturned.
It was, and the renewed crowd cheered the returning Everett Golson (who had been relieved again by Tommy Rees, but re-entered after Rees threw an interception) down the field until Golson’s pass to Jones got the Irish into the end zone for the first time.
But even the “Rudy” music couldn’t magically halt the Irish miscues. Harry Oliver once told me how he thought about the last line of the “Hail Mary” when his missed extra point nearly cost that Irish team their game against Michigan, and not counting the Daniels reversal, there were at least three times yesterday that the Irish appeared dead.
The first was after the Rees interception, which helped Pitt go up by two TDs late in the second half. The second came after Golson’s end zone interception, which ended an incredible 91-yard Irish drive with less than four minutes to play and the Irish still down by eight.
The last was Cierre Wood‘s end zone fumble in the second overtime, just as he was about to give the Irish its first lead.
At this point, some of the crowd’s rosaries that were being said inside pockets, now came out in the open, for all Pitt now needed to seal the Irish’s fate was a 33-yard field goal from sure-footed Panther kicker Kevin Harper, who booted four through on the day.
Harper kicked it clean, and the Panthers rushed the field to celebrate. But somehow the ball sailed just wide, and this time the Irish and their praying fans would not be denied. Golson won it with a one-yard touchdown QB sneak, and Notre Dame was 9-0, escaping the hour of death thrice to keep their title hopes alive.
After the band played their traditional post-game versions of “Notre Dame, Our Mother,” and “The Notre Dame Victory March,” many of the amazed Irish faithful were still reluctant to leave. And, sensing their grateful mood, the press box DJ obliged them with an encore rendition of “Rudy” music.
And as it played, I watched the players celebrate, especially Manti Te’o, whose post-game shout to the heavens seemed to reflect both thanksgiving and relief. “A Mormon player’s devotion leading Notre Dame back to its Catholic roots?” I asked myself. “Well, I’m sure stranger things have happened.”
But not many stranger than the way Notre Dame won Saturday.