Improbably, Irish survive Pitt

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- T.J. Jones walked into the postgame interview room donning a puffy winter hat with earflaps, the victory meal box safely in his hands.

"Chicken, bread, some beans," the junior said, looking down at dinner, "all right."

Some comfort clothing and food for a Saturday night preceded by four hours, seven minutes of nerve-racking drama that refused to end until Notre Dame, once and for all, had vanquished its ninth opponent of the season.

If the Irish are going to do what more and more are starting to believe they can -- improbably run the table, validate the third-year coach stigma and somehow sneak into the national title game -- they will count their lucky stars when looking back at what was anything but a Picasso.

Notre Dame 29, Pitt 26. Triple overtime.

This was everything the 2011 campaign was -- except the final score, meaning this unlikely 2012 run can roll on.

"I'm tired of talking about last year," coach Brian Kelly said. "I think this year the way our guys believe in each other, they believe in their coaches, they believe. They've won these games before. They believe they're going to win. I just think it's a great group of guys. The leadership is outstanding. We've got great competitors, and we've made some plays at the end that we needed to make.

"I just think it's more about this group and how they believe in each other and they believe in their coaches."

That's six believes in one answer, yet there was really no other way to describe how the Irish climbed out of a 20-6 fourth-quarter hole and reached 9-0.

They committed five penalties in the first quarter, eradicating their most productive opening period of the year in a frame that finished tied at 3.

They missed one field goal attempt and an extra-point attempt, leaving a metaphorical gray cloud hanging above two potential game-tying drives.

They pulled one quarterback, benched the replacement after a costly pick and watched the original starter throw a seemingly dooming interception in the end zone with less than four minutes to play, jeopardizing all the good the previous eight games had brought.

Then, after the original starter took his biggest growth spurt -- responding with a two-play scoring drive that ended with him plunging across the goal line to convert a needed two-point conversion -- they watched their running back cough up the ball on a goal-line leap in overtime No. 2, setting Pitt up for a 33-yard game-winning field goal try.

"Please fall or get a bad snap," Jones pleaded to no one in particular. "Penetration, miss it -- something. You want to yell, you want to like run on the field. There's a lot of different emotions that you want to do, but you can't."

DaVaris Daniels felt a pit in his stomach and turned away. Zack Martin sat and stared straight down into nothing.

And Kelly, the man who once cracked after a spring game that watching his starting quarterback gave him a heart attack?

"I really -- in all of those situations, there is just so much going on that I can't ever stop for one play and think about one play," Kelly said, his head down as he allowed himself a brief laugh. "I'm always thinking about something else that has to happen. So I couldn't give you a great answer other than I hope he misses, because I'd like to win this game."

Kevin Harper missed from 33. Notre Dame got the ball back. Everett Golson completed the next step of his evolution by diving in from a yard out, withstanding a replay review to cap his 301-yard day.

The Irish survived a misplaced page from the 2011 scrapbook -- three giveaways to Pitt's none. An exasperated Kelly survived a postgame presser straight out of last year -- a couple of testy answers following a close win.

The Irish can use Sunday morning's extra hour to sleep a little bit better, knowing some way, somehow, they survived their most frightening scare of the season.

"It's a very special team," Martin said. "We got great guys fighting to the end, but we've been on the other side of this for so many years, and I think the character of the guys we have here, and the way we fight to finish a game, is really thick. And it's gotten us to that next level."