Pitt and Notre Dame swung between euphoria and despair Saturday night at Heinz Field.
How appropriate, then, that safety Ray Vinopal and running back James Conner, who have experienced an up-and-down season, made the decisive plays in Pitt’s 28-21 victory before a standing-room-only crowd of 65,500.
Vinopal intercepted two passes – one in the end zone and another that he returned 40 yards to Irish 5-yard line that set up Conner’s go-ahead touchdown with 9 minutes, 36 seconds remaining in the game. Vinopal also forced a fumble deep in Pitt territory.
“All units contributed, and that’s what made this one feel good,” coach Paul Chryst said. “We were able to do enough things tonight against a good team to win. We have to use that going forward.”
Earlier in the game, Vinopal was on the field when Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees hit two big pass plays – 80 yards to T.J. Jones for a tiebreaking touchdown in the third quarter and 38 yards to tight end Ben Koyack to the 1 in the second quarter to set up Jones’ score and a 14-7 halftime lead.
Vinopal has been the subject of much external criticism this season, but Chryst said he pays no attention to it. He was merely pleased that Vinopal, a first-year starter, took advantage of his opportunities.
“What people say outside is not as important as what’s going on inside (the team’s practice facility),” Chryst said. “To experience success in a big way, it’s pretty neat to see a guy do that.”
Conner, who suffered through a shoulder injury and two key fumbles earlier this season, carried only 10 times for 35 yards, but he scored two touchdowns – his first scoring plays since Sept. 28. “He ran hard,” Chryst said.
The game broke a two-game losing streak for Pitt (5-4), which trailed until the fourth quarter. It also moved the Panthers within a victory of bowl eligibility with three games left in the season. Pitt has advanced to the postseason every year since 2008.
The victory also marked Pitt’s first successful fourth-quarter rally since a 19-17 victory against North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
Chryst said he will give his team time to savor Pitt’s first victory against Notre Dame since 2009, but it’s back to work Sunday when the Panthers start preparing for a visit from North Carolina next Saturday.
“The kids need to enjoy it (Saturday night) and then come back and get another opportunity next week,” Chryst said.
Street said the victory ranks as the most satisfying in his five years at Pitt.
“No. 1 for sure,” he said. “Definitely No. 1. We came out there and played as a total team today, and I couldn’t be more proud of these guys.”
Pitt received a break in the second quarter when defensive end Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame’s best pass rusher, was ejected for a helmet-to-helmet hit on quarterback Tom Savage, who remained in the game and completed 22 of 35 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly protested vehemently, but he said after the game that the officials told him they were merely following âœthe letter of the law.â For the first time, the NCAA has mandated that players who target the helmet will be ejected.
Chryst said he didn’t see the play, which occurred in front of the Notre Dame bench, nor did he watch the replay.
“It’s not my call, didn’t have to worry about (it),” he said.
The Panthers scored on that series â” Savage 3 yards to Street â” to cut the Notre Dame lead to 14-7.
Pitt tied the score at 14-14 late in the third quarter, kicking off a two-team, 21-point scoring burst in a span of 95 seconds. It took Pitt 13 plays and 6:18 to go 69 yards, with Conner scoring on a 2-yard run with 3:47 left in the quarter. The big play was a fourth-down gamble by Chryst, who chose to try for the first down on fourth-and-5 from the Notre Dame 31. Cornerback Bennett Jackson was called for pass interference on Street, and Conner scored three plays later.
On Notre Dame’s ensuing snap, Rees hit receiver Jones for an 80-yard touchdown. Almost immediately, Pitt forged another tie, 21-21, when Street caught a pass on the sideline, slipped past safety Matthias Farley and raced down the sideline for a 63-yard score. He dived, knocking over the pylon in the front corner of the end zone. It was his sixth touchdown of the season.
But Street caught only three other passes, finishing with four receptions for a total of 76 yards. Freshman Tyler Boyd had eight for 85.
With Conner and leading rusher Isaac Bennett carrying 27 times for a total of 92 yards, Pitt’s offense line â” playing for the fourth consecutive game without senior left guard Cory King – allowed only one sack. It was only the third time this season Pitt has not surrendered more than one.
Notre Dame (7-3) took a 7-0 lead on a 10-yard pass from Rees to DaVaris Daniels. Kelly went for a first down on fourth-and-4 from Pitt’s 34, and the gamble paid dividends. Rees hit Koyack for 10 yards, and Notre Dame scored two plays later.
Chryst said he’ll reserve judgment until the end of the season before calling this game a signature victory of his two-year term.
“It feels like a signature win because it was the most recent one,” he said. “I don’t know. We’ll play out the year and see.”
“We’ll save all the what’s-it-mean until we do something with it.”
Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reached him at email@example.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.