Jonathan Baldwin beats Darrin Walls again.
The Pitt football team has been quite explosive on offense this season, and that paid off with four big plays to help the Panthers secure a 27-22 win against Notre Dame with 65,374 in attendance Saturday night at Heinz Field.
No. 8 Pittsburgh, which ran its record to 9-1 to reach that regular-season win total for the second straight season, got a 36-yard touchdown catch from sophomore wideout Jonathan Baldwin, a fantastic 51-yard catch from Baldwin, a dazzling 53-yard run by freshman tailback Ray Graham and incredible 50-yard scoring jaunt by frosh back Dion Lewis in the victory.
"It's all about being patient as a running back, and I have to give all the credit to my offensive line for that,'' Graham said. "We hit them with some big plays in the passing game, and after pounding the ball for a while both Dion and I were able to break off big runs. So, that was a big part of the game.''
Pitt opened a 27-9 advantage just 2:46 into the fourth quarter following Lewis' long scoring run, but explosive Notre Dame would still get the ball back to make the game close. And stellar wideout Golden Tate was the catalyst for the comeback. The Panthers actually dominated the game until late in the third.
Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen capped an 11-play, 80-yard drive with a one-yard scoring plunge, and then he hit Tate for a 16-yard touchdown after the Lewis score. Tate made the score closer than it should have been with an 87-yard punt return with 7:16 remaining, but the Panthers ran a lot of time off the clock and forced a Clausen fumble with 2:12 left to seal the win.
"We knew they could do a lot of things on offense, so we just kept pushing and trying to get to Clausen,'' Pitt junior defensive end Jabaal Sheard said. "Our offense got us a big lead, and we were able to stop them when we needed to do it at the end.''
While Pitt's 9-1 start is its best since the same record in 1982, Notre Dame is floundering at 6-4 after its eighth straight loss to a top-10 team, the longest such streak in school history. And ND coach Charlie Weis is 1-10 against ranked teams since 2006, which puts his record at 35-25 (.583). Two Irish coaching predecessors, Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham, were fired with similar records.
Pitt, however, controls its own destiny with games at West Virginia Nov. 27 and at home to Cincinnati Dec. 5 to end the season. The WVU game is irrelevant in the standings, as the Panthers can capture the Big East title and BCS bid that accompanies it, by beating the Bearcats no matter what happens at WVU.
"Sure, we know what's up, but we're not thinking too far ahead,'' quarterback Bill Stull said. "We've been successful this year by taking it one game at a time, and it won't be any different now. We want to beat WVU, our biggest rival, and then we can worry about Cincinnati. And we owe them one after last year.''
Pitt finished one game off the Big East title pace last year after a loss at Cincinnati, but the Panthers are a different team. They can still run the ball, as evidence by 195 rushing yards against Notre Dame (6.1 per carry despite Stull's muffed center exchange in the shotgun that went for minus-12).
Lewis tallied 21 carries for 152 yards, while fellow frosh Ray Graham added 57 yards on just three carries. And each had a touchdown. Stull was 15-for-27 for 236 yards with the TD toss to Baldwin, who caught five passes for 142 yards. Along with the scoring catch, Baldwin also had an amazing 51-yard reception that was tipped twice, by himself and ND defender Darrin Walls before the sophomore wideout pulled it in to change field position.
"I do a lot of things to work on my catching ability and concentration,'' Baldwin said. "I work a lot before and after practice with Pat Bostick and my receivers coach Bryan Bossard, so they deserve a lot of credit for getting me ready.''
Baldwin wasn't the only Pitt player who was ready. The Panthers needed this win against Notre Dame for prestige and to remain in the Top 10, and it couldn't have gone much better for them for three-plus quarters. Pitt had a decided advantage in total offense and harassed Clausen as well.
But the Pitt defense couldn't keep Tate bottled up forever. He finished with nine catches for 113 yards and one touchdown to go with the long punt return for a score to nearly bring the Irish back. But Clausen wasn't able to finish, as Greg Romeus forced his fumble to dash the Irish hopes.
Pitt's Dan Hutchins kicked field goals from 34 and 38 yards out.