After narrow victory, Irish feel they've learned their lesson


SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame's national title hopes rested on the leg of Pittsburgh's Kevin Harper. If his 33-yard field goal went through the uprights, Notre Dame would fall to 8-1, squarely out of the BCS championship conversation.
Harper's kick missed wide right.
A few minutes later, Everett Golson broke the plane of the south end zone at Notre Dame Stadium, and the Irish secured a 29-26 win over Pitt in triple overtime.
It was a three-point win against a Big East team with a 4-4 record heading into Saturday.
Notre Dame was favored by 16 12 points.
"I think just maybe taking this week lightly a little bit, thinking that we could play Pitt and not play our A-game, we could play our B-game and get the W," wide receiver T.J. Jones said of Notre Dame's sloppy play. "It took us a while to kind of catch on and click. But once we figured out that this was going to be a battle, we started to get things rolling."
Notre Dame dominated the fourth quarter, but the first three rounds had Pitt nearing a knockout punch. The Panthers' 14-point lead heading into the fourth quarter was the largest deficit Notre Dame had faced all year, and it came from a team that, on paper, was clearly inferior to the No. 3 Irish.
But Notre Dame has come to realize the team they face on paper -- and on film, too -- may not be the same team they face on game day.
"It's a different type of team, when they come here they play Notre Dame. Notre Dame itself, just the name, has a lot of presence behind it," wide receiver DaVaris Daniels explained. "And then us being ranked so high now, it's added. It's really tough to get a feel for what kind of team you're going to see."
It wasn't so much that Notre Dame wasn't prepared for Pitt -- coach Brian Kelly said the Irish had a good week of practice and preparation, for what it's worth -- but it was more that it's tough to anticipate an unknown.
And while Pitt upped its game on Saturday, Notre Dame didn't play half as well as they did in Oklahoma. The Irish had three costly turnovers -- two of which came in the end zone -- and few ill-timed penalties. Notre Dame's vaunted front seven were largely neutralized through the first three quarters, with running back Ray Graham gouging the defense on the ground and on a few screen passes.
Had that play continued in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame would be sitting at 8-1, and it wouldn't have been by a close margin.
"Last year, that would have been a loss for us, but our team kept fighting, kept playing," Kelly said. "I told them they have to understand that everybody they play against will play their absolute best. Next week, BC will play out of their minds against us, and Wake Forest will (the week after that). And they can't just highlight certain teams on their schedule, because they will play their very best. I think that's a lesson learned for our football team."
Looking around the BCS championship landscape, it reveals three teams that have experience with success. Alabama is the defending national champion, Oregon is two years removed from a title game berth and Kansas State was a top-10 team in 2011.
Notre Dame started off 2011 0-2 and finished with five losses, the same number the Irish had in 2010.
"I think coach put it best, it's hard being 9-0," linebacker Manti Te'o said. "And we're learning that. We have a lot of veteran players, but we don't have anybody on this team that's ever been 9-0. And so we're understand that now, through this process we're growing. We're looking at things, seeing we have to be mature about this whole thing. We came out and things weren't working out, things weren't falling into our hands, but we kept fighting. Happy that it came out the way it did."
Saturday's win certainly won't sit well with the pollsters or computers, most of which didn't think too highly of Pitt. But ultimately, how Notre Dame won doesn't change the big picture, which is that Notre Dame needs attrition ahead of them to reach the BCS championship game. It doesn't matter how Notre Dame wins, just that they win.
But with that win in the books, Notre Dame players say they aren't going to go home and aggressively channel-surf Alabama-LSU, Oregon-USC and Oklahoma State-Kansas State.
"I'm actually going to go home and go to sleep," Te'o said. "When you start paying attention to other teams, you forget what the main thing is, your team. Those other teams don't affect you. The only thing that affects you is you."
"I'm not looking at any of that," fellow captain Zack Martin added. "If they're on, I'll watch them. But I'm not worried about that. I don't think the team's worried about that. We're worried about being 9-0 and BC next week."

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