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Panthers come up short in South Bend

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A second-half Panthers rally isn't enough as Notre Dame knocks off Pitt 23-17

South Bend, IN—After coming back late in the second half from a 17-point deficit, the Pittsburgh Panthers (2-3) failed to find any kind of momentum on their final two drives of the game, falling 23-17 to Notre Dame (3-3) at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday afternoon.

The Panthers had just seven plays on the final two drives, including a Tino Sunseri incomplete pass to Mike Shanahan on 4th-and-4 with a little over a minute left, which effectively ended the game.

“I made a decision that we weren't real comfortable with the plays we had,” said coach Dave Wannstedt about calling a questionable timeout on their second-to-last drive, debating whether to punt or go for it on 4th-and-three at their own seven yard line. “I put the game the defense's hand, and they got a stop like we wanted. We just couldn't execute on offense.”

Pitt went just 2-of-4 on red-zone scoring-chances.

Notre Dame took advantage of the Panthers miscues early, scoring 17 unanswered points in the first half, including a Dayne Crist 10-yard rollout scramble, giving the Irish a 14-3 nod with 8:25 left in the second quarter, and capping a season-long 6:23 drive, going 15 plays for 80 yards.

“They did a good job,” said Wannstedt. “They were very efficent. We missed some tackles early. They broke tackles, they made first downs in the first half.”

A Tino Suneri four-yard rollout keeper late in the third quarter narrowed the Panthers deficit to 10 points. After a David Ruffer 31-yard field goal for Notre Dame, a Sunseri 56-yard pass to Jonathan Baldwin with 7:23 left in the game, brought Pitt to the six-point margin.

Baldwin finished with 111 yards on nine receptions, marking the first time the receiver eclipsed the 100-yard mark since Week 2 against New Hampshire.

“We've been eying him every game,” said Sunseri about his biggest target Baldwin. “Anytime you have a receiver like him, you just want to get him the ball. He was finding ways to get open and getting separation. I just wanted to get him the ball.”

OFFENSE

The Panthers corralled 382 total yards, going 5-of-15 on third-down conversions and just 1-of-4 on fourth-down conversions.

Sophomore quarterback Tino Sunseri had a solid day through the air, passing for 272 yards, going 27-of-39, with just one interception, a Harrison Smith pick at the 45-yard line, after receiver Mike Shanahan fell down on his route midway through the first quarter.

“I thought he made good decisions,” said Wannstedt of his quarterback's play. “He didn't turn the ball over; he didn't throw it into coverage. I thought he did very well.

“I think it's going to be a process throughout the year really,” continued the coach. “Every week will present different challenges depending on the team we play. He's got to keep moving forward and keep working hard like everybody.”

After missing the entire Florida International game last week due to an injured shoulder, tailback Dion Lewis found his groove again, rushing for 64 yards on 13 carries. Ray Graham followed close behind with 44 yards on eight carries. 

“I just wanted to get out there and try to push the offense to win,” said Lewis.

Both tailbacks failed to reach the end zone thanks to once-promising drives that stalled out, including a nine-play drive that led Pitt all the way down to the Irish 20-yard line, but ended in no points tanks to a Dan Hutchens wide-right miss on a 33-yard field goal attempt with 14:48 left in the second quarter. 

“We just can't stall like that,” said Lewis. “To be a good team we need to score touchdowns. That's an area we need to improve on. We need to finish.”

DEFENSE

Led by Max Gruder, who finished with a team-high seven tackles, the defense started off on their heels, but finished with a sturdy second-half effort, surrendering just two field goals.

As a unit, the Panthers gave up 329 yards, including being picked apart in the secondary, and giving up a 242-yard aerial performance by Dayne Crist, who threw one touchdown, a one-yard fade to Michael Floyd, capping a 13-play, 77-yard drive, and giving Notre Dame its first score of the game.

“I don't know what it was; I can't sit here and make excuses,” said Gruder. “We need to focus. That's horrible. We can't go out there unfocused like that and expect to win against a good team like Notre Dame.”

Notre Dame had two scores called back on penalties, including a 50-yard touchdown pass from Crist to Floyd with under five minutes in the game, which was called back thanks to a blatant offensive pass interference call. The Irish punted one play later.

“We had our chances,” said Pitt linebacker Dom Decicco. “I felt we could have done a lot more in the first half to protect the momentum we had going in the second half. We just need to put it all together.”

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Panthers failed to connect on two field goals, including a botched hold by Andrew Jonocko on a 36-yard field goal attempt to end the half.

“Our holder dropped the ball,” Wannstedt said. “He lost control of it. He's been doing it for four years, and Hutch is a good and dependable kicker as we got, and he just pushed it to the right. Bad day. Bad day in the kicking game.”

Several questionable plays by kick returner Cam Saddler, including allowing the ball to bounce 10-yards to the seven-yard line on the Irish's final punt of the game. Had a fair catch been issued, the ball would have been spotted eight yards upfield.

Notre Dame took a more efficient route in the special teams game, thanks to kicker David Ruffer, who connected on kicks from 31, 32, and 50-yards out.

“Ruffer is obviously doing things that obviously not many people including myself thought he could do,” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. “He's just been outstanding. The kicking game and the kickers, in particular, were very strong.”

COACHSPEAK

“I told them that we have to put together a full game,” said Wannstedt. “We cleaned up some penalties, we played until the final whistle. I thought our quarterback play was improved. Our offensive line, I think the decision we made there is the best one, and we're making progress there. We just have to play all the phases for 60 minutes.”

NEXT UP

The Panthers will travel to Syracuse in their first conference game with the 4-1 Orange on Oct. 16.

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