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Pittsburgh comes aw-Foley close to stunning Notre Dame

Pittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri gets hit by Prince Shembo second half. | Michael Conroy~AP

Pittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri gets hit by Prince Shembo in the second half. | Michael Conroy~AP

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Updated: December 5, 2012 6:47AM



SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Aside from nearly identical physical dimensions and some deceptively comparable passing stats, any similarities between Glenn Foley and Tino Sunseri are purely coincidental.

Foley was the 6-2, 210-pound Boston College senior responsible for one of the most crowd-silencing, euphoria-draining outcomes in Notre Dame history 19 years ago.

Sunseri, a 6-2, 215-pound fifth-year Pitt senior, had a chance to emulate Foley on Saturday at nervous Notre Dame Stadium. He couldn’t, and the Irish continued their surprising march toward BCS relevance with a 29-26 overtime victory, their ninth straight.

Notre Dame overcame two interceptions, a goal-line fumble, a missed field goal, an errant PAT kick and myriad lesser gaffes in remaining undefeated and in increasingly serious contention for a berth in the BCS title game. Its defense simply dominated the fourth period and all three extra ones, limiting the Panthers (4-5) to eight yards on 14 fourth-quarter plays while Pitt was going 1-for-14 on third-down conversions for the day. The Panthers also missed a game-winning 33-yard field goal in the second overtime.

A sluggish, mistake-prone offense eventually found its way behind skittish quarterback Everett Golson, clawing back from a 20-6 deficit as Golson threw for two touchdowns, ran for a third and scrambled in for a game-tying two-point conversion with 52 seconds left in regulation.

“It’s hard being 9-0,” said Manti Te’o, Notre Dame’s spiritual-leader linebacker. “No one on this team has ever been in that situation. Every team we play is going to give us their absolute best shot, just like Pitt did. We’re learning that.”

Last week’s definitive thumping of the Oklahoma Sooners in Norman, Okla., has been hailed as ND’s most significant victory in 19 years, since Nov. 13, 1993, when the Irish held off Florida State 31-24 in a 2-vs.-1 showdown that put them atop the polls and positioned them for their second national championship of the Lou Holtz era. A perfunctory regular-season finale against Boston College was all that stood between unbeaten ND and a possible bowl-game coronation.

But Foley and his BC teammates carried sour memories of the previous year’s 54-7 drubbing, in particular a fourth-quarter fake punt that struck them as piling on. They were out for payback, and they got it by outlasting the Irish in a 41-39 thriller.

Foley resembled a larger, less celebrated Doug Flutie in passing for 315 yards and four touchdowns, with four straight completions on the final-minute drive that produced David Gordon’s game-winning 41-yard field goal.

Totally deflated, Notre Dame recovered to clip Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl but finished second to Florida State in the polls and hasn’t had a seat at the national-championship table since.

The Irish are hoping to be dealt in this year, but their 8-0 start would have been about as meaningful as a pair of twos to a poker hand had they stumbled against Pitt, a 4-4 mediocrity coming in, a team shaken to its core by coaching instability and pending criminal charges against three of its top players.

Ray Graham ran for 172 yards on 24 carries, including a 55-yard scamper on Pitt’s first play from scrimmage, but Sunseri didn’t exactly pull a Foley on the Irish. After a 10-for-12 start, he finished 19-for-29 for 164 yards and took five sacks for 43 yards in losses.

“We had opportunities in all three phases that we didn’t take advantage of,” said Paul Chryst, the former Wisconsin offensive coordinator who is Pitt’s fourth coach in three years.

Thus were the Irish able to hang around and steal one despite managing only 99 total yards during one stretch of five empty possessions. They covered 60 yards in 14 plays on their first series and 81 yards in 18 plays on their second but had only six points to show for all that real estate and more than a full quarter of possession time.

A letdown after Oklahoma?

“There was nothing that would be an excuse if we did not come out on the right side of it today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We did not play as well as we needed to. It was not our best effort. But we found a way to win against a team that played well. That’s a good thing.”

Up next: eminently winnable games against Boston College and Wake Forest, followed by a season-ending showdown at always-imposing Southern California. Kelly insists he pays no mind to BCS permutations, but a Notre Dame team that is 12-0 against a credible schedule would be a very good thing, and an irresistible title-game attraction.

College football is a better game when Notre Dame matters. And this year, somehow, it matters plenty.



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