What could have been: Pitt vs. ND

No. 1 Notre Dame plays No. 2 Alabama in the Discover BCS National Championship later tonight.

But what could have been ...

Those title hopes nearly came crashing down against Pitt on Nov. 3, one of two teams to give the Irish their biggest scare on the season. Notre Dame survived a 29-26 thriller in triple overtime, in a game most everybody would say the Panthers gave away. *Apologies to Pitt fans who do not want to relieve that afternoon.

Considering the Irish are undefeated and on the biggest college football stage, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at what happened in the game, to look for areas Alabama is sure to exploit. Pitt held a 20-6 lead going into the fourth quarter based largely on Ray Graham, who had 13 carries for 151 yards and a score through three quarters.

Then. The running stopped. Graham found no room to run in the final quarter or the three overtimes, with nine carries for 21 yards. Tino Sunseri wilted under the pressure. Questionable play calling in the fourth quarter hurt the Panthers. One example: With 3:59 left to play and a 20-12 lead, Pitt called three straight passing plays. Sunseri was forced to run on one. Second example: after the Irish tied the score, Pitt got the ball with 2:11 remaining. Once again, the first two play calls were passing plays.

Then, of course, there was a highly questionable pass interference call on K'Waun Williams on one fourth-quarter Irish scoring drive and a missed field goal by Kevin Harper in the second overtime that would have won it. Notre Dame should have been flagged on that kick for having two players on the field with the same jersey, and Pitt given a first down. But the refs missed the call, and Notre Dame won the game.

No doubt it was a lost opportunity for the Panthers. A win there, and we may have very well had another SEC showdown in the title game, potentially between Alabama and Florida. Perhaps there would have been a Bama-Oregon matchup.

In the end, Graham had one of the finest games of his career -- a performance that stands as the best against the Irish in 2012. His season-high 172 yards rushing are the the most against the Irish this year. His first carry of the game went 55 yards, the longest offensive play on Notre Dame this season. Later in the second quarter, his 16-yard touchdown run was the first rushing TD the Irish had given up this year.

How does this relate to the game tonight? Alabama has a pretty dynamic running game of its own, with two 1,000-yard rushers in Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, so it is a safe bet they studied the Pitt tapes to see how the Panthers were able to break off some big plays with Graham. AJ McCarron is a better quarterback than Sunseri, so the Tide have the edge there.

Defensively, Pitt allowed Everett Golson to have his best day rushing on the season, with 74 yards and a touchdown. In all, Notre Dame had 231 yards rushing on a whopping 51 carries. You have to slow down the rushing game to slow down the Irish.