Saturday, November 01, 2008

Post Mortem: Pittsburgh 36, Notre Dame 33 (4 OT)

Oh boy.

As a general rule here at the blog, we try to avoid linking Bill Simmons (except for Pat, who has some heretofore unexplained affection for the Boston Sports Guy). But after a moment like today, we do pause and give thanks for one of Bill's incredibly rare but meaningful contributions to sports fandom: The Levels of Losing. Why do I bring this up? Because Notre Dame's loss to Pittsburgh today definitely climbed into the highest echelon of Bill's pain evaluation level.

Today brought us Level III - The Stomach Punch:
Any roller-coaster game that ends with (A) an opponent making a pivotal (sometimes improbable) play or (B) one of your guys failing in the clutch. ... Usually ends with fans filing out after the game in stunned disbelief, if they can even move at all. ... Always haunting, sometimes scarring. ... There are degrees to The Stomach Punch Game, depending on the situation. ... For instance, it's hard to top Cleveland's Earnest Byner fumbling against Denver when he was about two yards and 0.2 seconds away from sending the Browns to the Super Bowl.
Thankfully no Super Bowl trip was on the line. You'd be forgiven for thinking it was based on a blind sample of most message board listings on NDNation, but this was a very average 5-2 Notre Dame team taking on a very average 5-2 Pittsburgh team. It was also the kind of game where the Irish had no trouble doing just enough to make sure they gave the game away.

Last week's riddle was, "Honestly, how good do you have to be to dominate Washington?" This week was, "How do you outgain a team, win the turnover battle 3-0, have your unreliable kicker nail four straight field goals, commit fewer penalties than your opponent, do better on third downs than your opponent, get more sacks than your opponent, more first downs than your opponent, hold a 14-point lead at half and still manage to lose the game?" If you look at the box score, not one single stat jumps out at you as an explaination of the result. There wasn't one glaring deficiency in either team's ledger - which probably explains why it took four overtimes to settle the matter. Let's look at each facet of the game for the two squads:

Rushing Offenses: Popular opinion running rampant on the message boards seems to be that Pittsburgh ran wild the entire day without even token resistance while Notre Dame couldn't get forward progress on the ground to save it's life. The stats paint a different picture: an effective, though hardly dominant Pitt game plan which emphasiszed running the ball over and over again, reflected in 47 runs for 178 total yards. I expected it to look as drastic on the scoresheet as it seemed to be on the field, but the truth was Pitt rushed for a good-enough-but-hardly-overwhelming 3.8 yards per carry - and that figure was boosted by getting to play four overtime periods. The Irish toted the ball 39 times but for an anemic 2.9/ypc.

Passing Offenses: Pitt was playing with second string quarterback Pat Bostick most of the day, but also mixed in third stringer Kevan Smith early in the game. Bostick's "long" completion of the day was three-yard pass to the flat on fourth-down, after which a basic failure to tackle on the part of Terrail Lambert turned it into a 37-yard gain. I'd have to double check the game film, but it seemed like whenever Bostick threw the ball over 12 yards it got either (a) dropped or (b) intercepted by Raeshon McNeil (he had two on the day as Pitt's QB threw three picks, two in the second half). On the ND side of things, Jimmy Clausen had another on-again/off-again day, finishing only 23-of-44 for 271 yards with 3 TDs, though no interceptions. That doesn't mean he played an error-free game, but credit him for staying away from the big mistakes that could've swung the outcome long before Conor Lee and Brandon Walker did.

Special Teams: Pitt forced the big miscue of the day with a blocked punt to set up their first points of the day, and Eric Maust misfired another one off the side of his foot, but neither team made much noise in the kicking and return games. As for placekicking, Brandon Walker shouldered what most would've considered an impossible load for im, being asked three different times to come up big with a kick to keep the Irish in the game, and he delivered. It was finally in the fourth overtime, kicking from the left side of the field, that he pushed it just a bit too far and opened the door for Pittsburgh. People who point the finger of blame at him for this loss are people who simply aren't paying attention.

Defenses: The Irish won the turnover battle with 3 interceptions of Bostick. Pitt in the second half was able to consistently come after Clausen with only three down lineman, but it wasn't hard for them to look dominating considering their offense held onto the ball for 10:51 in the third quarter alone. When Pitt needed to stop the Irish in the 4th quarter after tying the game, Clausen moved the ball at will, chewing up five minutes of clock and pushing the Irish back in front by a touchdown. From that point on the Panthers defense seemed to have their way, aided in part by a long chain of strange playcalls, particularly in the overtime period. It's worth noting however that the situation where Notre Dame really struggled to get into the endzone during the OTs - had second and goal at the 3 in the first session - is precisely where it really f&*kin' stinks to be down to two scholarship tight ends, both freshman who aren't even close to being polished blockers yet.

In breaking another unspoken cardinal rule, at this point I have to deputize Brian Hamilton into my assessment of the game:
It was two somewhat better-than-average teams engaged in an entertaining taffy pull. It was not, as Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt proclaimed, a game in which "legends are made," unless becoming the new Monsters of the Middling qualifies.

That, however, may be Notre Dame's reason to grieve: The Irish (5-3) thought they were beyond losing to teams like Pittsburgh (6-2), especially when Pitt is down to a backup quarterback and trails by two touchdowns at halftime at Notre Dame Stadium.

Only, they're not. Still.
Tough to take positives from any loss, especially one the Irish seemed to be thoroughly in control of before pretty much failing to do anything right in the second half. That's twice in a span of four weeks. It wasn't a game Pitt deserved to win, but rather a game the Irish ultimately deserved to lose. That's why it hurts right up there with the famous "Stomach Punches" Mr. Simmons likes to wax on about.

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