SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- At the beginning of the day, when the sky was still bright and the tailgate grills were still hot, Saturday was all about the past and the future at Notre Dame. It was about last week's victory at Oklahoma, a dominant win that validated the Fighting Irish's unbeaten record and pushed them to No. 3 in the BCS rankings. (And as with all things Notre Dame, it was about the century of football that preceded it, because that history is never far away from the Dome). It was also about the allure of a future that would surely include a berth in some BCS bowl, and maybe, if a few things broke just right, the biggest BCS bowl. There was a sense of celebration in the air, and if there was one thing that scarcely mattered at all, it was the late afternoon's game against a bug-on-the-windshield Pittsburgh team that had lost earlier in the season to Youngstown State (or the two games that would follow against Boston College and Wake Forest before a meeting with USC in Los Angeles).
Hours later, in the darkness and cold, none of those things mattered. There was no longer any buzz about computers or human polls or strengths of schedules, or any of the things that make the annual autumn uncertainty of college football either a) charming or b) infuriating or c) both. There was only desperation, and a sense that soon 8-0 and would be 8-1 and Notre Dame's time on the biggest stage would be over for another season. Hours later, all that mattered was a single game, a 29-26 triple-overtime victory over Pittsburgh that might someday either be written off as a good team surviving on a bad day or used to bludgeon the Irish with their own mediocrity. But more than four hours after kickoff Saturday, it was none of those things: It was only survival in a game that was nearly lost. "It was not our best effort,'' Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly would say when it was over. So to win was a gift.
The game was nearly lost when Pittsburgh fifth-year senior kicker Kevin Harper -- remember that name -- made a 21-yard field goal to give Pittsburgh a 20-6 lead with 58 seconds left in the third quarter. At this point Notre Dame had not scored a point in nearly 24 minutes of game time, since the second of two Kyle Brindza field goals, and showed no signs of unleashing offense. Yet Notre Dame responded by driving 71 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown -- aided by a very generous pass interference call against Pittsburgh's K'Waun Williams -- remember that name, too -- on a fourth-down incompletion that would likely have ended the game. Still Notre Dame remained down, 20-12, when Brindza missed the extra point.
It was nearly lost when Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson, who had been benched for the middle of the game, drove the Irish to the Pittsburgh seven-yard line and then underthrew a pass intended for backup tight end Troy Niklas at the back corner of the end zone and was intercepted by Pitt's Williams with 3:59 to play. "It was a horrible throw, a horrible read,'' said Golson, whose performance at Oklahoma seemed to convey a jump in maturation. Yet Notre Dame stopped Pitt and got the ball back at midfield with 3:03 left.
And on first down came the type of disbelief-suspending completion -- somewhere between method and miracle -- that will be seen as providential should Notre Dame's season end with a zero in the loss column. (Plus I watched it standing on the sideline next to Doug Flutie, the original Mr. Miracle.) Trapped in a collapsing pocket, Golson scrambled. Sophomore wideout DaVaris Daniels ran a dig route (over the middle), but then saw Golson in trouble. The two had worked on similar scenarios during practice. "I think the whole week I've kind of been on DeVaris about when a play breaks down, improvise and just get open.''
Daniels remembered: "Everett saw me, I saw him, so I broke it long.'' Still, Daniels wasn't open. Pitt's Jason Hendricks was behind Daniels. Yet the pass was underthrown, and Daniels adjusted first, stopping and creating space. "I was thinking, this is a big one,'' said Daniels. "I've got to make a play on this.'' He jumped back toward the line of scrimmage and made the catch; Hendricks wrestled him down at the five-yard line. Golson threw five yards to Theo Riddick for a touchdown on the next play and then ran for the game-tying two-point conversion.
But the game was surely lost in the second overtime, when Notre Dame's Cierre Wood dove over the top for what appeared to be a go-ahead touchdown, but was ruled to have fumbled before breaking the plane. Needing only a field goal to win, Pitt handed Harper a 33-yard attempt. It seemed certain this game would end like another one had 19 years earlier, when Notre Dame, one week off an epic Game of the Century win over Florida State that pushed the Irish to No. 1 in the pre-BCS national polls, lost to Boston College on a last-second field goal in the same end of the stadium. (The kicker was David Gordon; his father owned the Hartford Whalers, and the kick was a knuckleball. I was in the stadium and I can see it all like yesterday.) This time the kick missed, narrowly drifting to the right even as Pitt coach Paul Chryst raised his hands to celebrate. Even as Notre Dame senior left tackle Paul Martin sat on the bench, looking only at the cold ground beneath his feet. "I was just hoping we got another chance to go out there,'' said Martin.
Given this unlikely life, Notre Dame finally finished the Panthers. After Harper put Pitt up three with a 44-yard kick, six plays were needed for the Irish to win, including an 11-yard second-down completion from Golson to Riddick. On the winning score from the one-yard line, Notre Dame's offense implored that Kelly run a play that he had chosen not to run in the first half. "Quarterback sneak,'' said Martin. "It was unanimous.'' Golson went over, and then Irish fans waited out an officials' review before celebrating the result.
In the aftermath, Notre Dame players said what committed teammates are supposed to say. "We all had to believe that we were going to win,'' said senior linebacker Manti Te'o, the Irish's emotional leader. "Nobody had a doubt. Next play. It was ugly at times and beautiful at times.'' They denied losing hope (when in fact they were in denial).
In truth, it was mostly ugly. Notre Dame stuffed Oklahoma's running game, limiting the then No. 8 Sooners to 15 yards on 24 carries. Pittsburgh trampled the Irish for 144 yards on 33 carries, though just 23 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime. (Easily lost in the relief of Notre Dame's win was the pain of Pittsburgh's loss. The Panthers are enduring a poor season, and a win in South Bend would have been career-defining. "We had a chance to knock off the number five team in the country, on their field,'' said senior quarterback Tino Sunseri. "We let it slip. We couldn't close it out.'')
The Irish can draw some encouragement from the play of Golson, who was not pretty or coldly efficient, but rallied from a benching -- "He missed a number of things, progressions and coverage reads, that he needed to have down by this time,'' said Kelly -- and a horrible red-zone pick to play with courage late in regulation and through overtime. (On the benching, Golson said, "To be honest, I was a little upset, because of the competitor in me, I wanted to be out there.")
He sat three series, bridged by halftime. And then he played better. "I thought he competed his butt off,'' said Kelly. "He not perfect, but the boy'' -- indelicate choice of pronoun there -- "competes. And man, he just kept competing in the second half and found a way for us to get enough points on the board. So he got the game ball.''
By Sunday afternoon and into the coming week, when the game day emotions are gone, Notre Dame will suffer a beatdown from pundits. In light of Saturday night's other games, Notre Dame's win will be described almost as a loss. But that's not fair. And more to the point, it's also not true.