On a bizarre Saturday around college football, sometimes the best a team can hope for is to get the win -- no matter how ugly or tough -- and move on. That was the case for No. 5 Notre Dame, which needed a late fourth quarter touchdown to avoid being upset by Pitt, 19-14 in South Bend.
This was more than a slow start by the Irish. The offense wasn't able to get into the end zone until there were two minutes left in the third quarter. Overall, the Irish averaged 4.9 yards per play, had a pair of interceptions and a brutal failed fourth-down attempt in the fourth quarter that could have cost them the game.
Still, the upset was avoided, so here's what we learned about the close call in South Bend.
1. Notre Dame's offense underperformed. Or Pitt's defense played better than expected, depending on your viewpoint. The reality is it's a little bit of both. Notre Dame had a hard time running the ball at 2.1 yards per rush. For as much as quarterback Ian Book has elevated the ceiling of this offense, it doesn't matter if the Irish can't run the ball effectively. And this is against a run defense that ranks near the bottom of the ACC. But credit to Pitt's defense for showing up. The Panthers had given up 18 touchdowns in three losses before Saturday.
2. Never play Pitt if you're a top five team. Pitt's notorious record against top-five teams didn't entirely help this time, but it's still good to avoid the Panthers in these situations if possible. (Note that Notre Dame has to play Pitt as part of its scheduling agreement with the ACC, so there's no avoiding it there.) Pitt, of course, had monster wins over No. 2 Miami in 2017, No. 2 Clemson in 2016 and No. 2 West Virginia in 2007. This looked like another game in which the Panthers might pull off a massive upset by getting its opponent to play down. Notre Dame came away with the win, but it wasn't easy by any means. It was a very "2012 Notre Dame survive-and-advance" type of win. The Irish will take it ... and maybe burn the film.
3. Pitt's special teams were costly. The Panthers kicked off the second half with a monster 99-yard touchdown return by Maurice Ffrench. However, special teams were mostly costly in this loss. Kicker Alex Kessman went 0-for-2 on field goal attempts and coach Pat Narduzzi called a bizarre fake punt with about three minutes remaining from near midfield. Sometimes, so-called "bad calls" are really just plays that weren't executed properly, but in that instance, Pitt was better off simply going for it on fourth down instead of trying to catch Notre Dame off guard and giving the Irish good field position. In a close game, special teams can make a difference. That was the case here.
4. Having Book still paid off. The move to Book midseason has been a well-documented success. And while this was nowhere near Notre Dame's best offensive performance, it still helps immensely to have a quarterback who can hit the downfield pass. That's exactly what Book did on the Irish's 35-yard pass to Miles Boykin in the fourth quarter for the go-ahead score. It felt like a matter of time before the Irish were about to break something open once there was clear urgency. That was the difference-making play. Sometimes, that one play is all you need.