Comebacks have been the calling card of this Notre Dame team, a theme that might me lend itself perfectly to the opponent in front of the Fighting Irish this Saturday.
In Pitt, Notre Dame will take on a team that is 5-2 this season in games with a single-digit margin. The Irish, meanwhile, have executed fourth-quarter comebacks in three of their seven victories, with another falling short in their only loss, at Clemson.
That confluence of close calls might be fitting given the nature of Pitt and Notre Dame’s recent meetings. The teams have split their last six matchups at three wins each. None of the games has been decided by more than seven points. And there have been seven total overtime periods throughout those games.
“The way Pitt is constructed, they're a team that is under Coach [Paul] Chryst and Coach [Dave] Wannstedt and the teams that we've played there have all been fairly similar in terms of ball-control offense, physical running style and then an aggressive defense,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “So it's kind of lent itself to that kind of style. You know, it's Midwest, it's generally not the greatest of weather conditions, and you're dealing with those kinds of situations.
“It’s a game that's been played for a lot of years, so there's a lot of history to the game, and I think both teams really look toward this one as a special game on their calendar.”
With first-year coach Pat Narduzzi at the helm after a dominant run as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator, Notre Dame is expecting more of the same.
“They're a hard-nosed defense,” Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer said. “Coach Narduzzi, he's had a lot of success at Michigan State running the defense that he has. Pitt is buying in. They have all the talent in the world over there. They have fast guys. They have strong guys. They have guys that have been there and done it a couple times.
“I believe they're buying into what he is laying out for them. We have to come in and continue to play Notre Dame football and put ourselves in a position to win the game and grind it out with those guys.”
Saturday’s game at Heinz Field will mark the fifth time Kelly has faced the Panthers in his six years with the Irish, and he enters with a 3-1 record. That includes an ugly, back-and-forth 15-12 Irish win in 2011, and a then-4-4 Pitt taking a then-undefeated Irish team to three overtimes in 2012. And Pitt shocked the Irish a year later.
This is hardly new ground for Kelly, whose final game at Cincinnati was a 45-44 win at Pitt, which capped an unbeaten regular season. He went 1-1 in his two previous games against the Panthers while with the Bearcats, with each game being decided by seven points.
Narduzzi's history against Notre Dame is similar. The Spartans were 3-4 against the Irish during his time on Michigan State’s staff, although only three of those games were decided by a single possession.
His last meeting with the Irish was the Spartans’ only loss in their Rose Bowl-winning season.
“I’ve looked at 2012 and 2013 games to get an idea what they like to do,” Narduzzi said. “There's a ton of similarities. Offenses are going to attack defenses based on what their weaknesses are. I know what our weaknesses are, and Brian Kelly does, too. You expect him to find different ways or some of the same ways to go back and attack you defensively.”
Playing their first noon game since 2011 — coincidentally, that one was at Pitt as well — the Irish flew in Thursday night to better adjust to the early kick.
In 2012, Pitt was a missed field goal away from ending Notre Dame’s run to the national title game. In 2013, the Panthers delivered the Irish their third loss, essentially eliminating them from a BCS bowl.
Now the Irish enter fresh off a No. 5 ranking, with playoff hopes still in sight. At 7-1 for the second year in a row, they are trying to avoid last year’s collapse, when they finished with four straight losses. They have their eyes on a top-four spot, with 6-2 Pitt — 40 years after Tony Dorsett rushed for 303 yards against Notre Dame — relishing its role again.
"It’s a pride thing or rivalry thing because Pitt and Notre Dame have that long history of being rivals and enemies,” Pitt receiver Tyler Boyd said. “We always put it all out there, even if one is ranked or both are ranked or no one is ranked. We still go head-to-head like a championship game. We have to get that one. It’s a pride thing."