NOTRE DAME, Ind. -- For four quarters, and a little bit extra, Pitt went toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the country.
On more than a few occasions, it even looked like the Panthers had sealed what would have been a historic win.
When the final whistle sounded, though, Pitt had come up agonizingly short, falling to No. 4 Notre Dame, 29-26, in triple overtime Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
Pitt held a 20-6 lead heading into the fourth quarter and twice appeared to have the game locked up in the final minutes.
"We had opportunities and we let them slip," Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri said. "Whenever you have a top-5 team like that on the ropes, and you have a chance to end the game, you have to be able to take advantage of it."
The Panthers (4-5, 1-3 Big East) allowed the Irish to creep back into the game in the fourth quarter and cut the lead to 20-12, but with 3:59 left, K'Waun Williams intercepted Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson in Pitt's end zone.
Instead of grinding out the game on the ground, Pitt coach Paul Chryst opted to stay aggressive, passing on first down. The Panthers ended up going three-and-out on that drive, giving the ball back to Notre Dame with enough time for the Irish to put together a tying drive.
"You want to be smart, but aggressive," Chryst said of the late playcalling. "The whole mindset the whole game was to go win this thing."
The Irish (9-0) got the ball back at the 50, and Golson hit receiver Davaris Daniels for a 45-yard pass on the first play of the drive. He found running back Theo Riddick for a touchdown on the next play, and Golson scrambled in on the 2-point attempt to even the score at 20-20.
The teams traded field goals in the first overtime, and in the second overtime Notre Dame worked the ball down to the Pitt 2. Running back Cierre Wood took a handoff on second-and-goal and leaped over the pile. Before he could cross the line, though, the ball popped loose and Pitt recovered in the end zone.
The Pitt offense took the field needing just a field goal to finish off the upset. After three runs from Ray Graham, Kevin Harper stared down a 33-yard field goal. The snap came in a little high, and Harper just barely pushed the kick wide right.
"We had an opportunity there," Chryst said. "A golden opportunity, and we didn't get it done."
Given new life yet again, Notre Dame held Pitt to a field goal in the third overtime and marched 25 yards on six plays for a winning touchdown.
"It's a tough pill to swallow," linebacker Joe Trebitz said. "We really played our butts off tonight. I'm proud of this team."
For three quarters, it looked like Pitt was ready to shake up the BCS championship picture by knocking off the unbeaten Irish. The offense scored more points against Notre Dame's highly touted defense than any other this season, and, early on, Pitt's defense bottled up Notre Dame's rushing attack.
On the first play from scrimmage, Graham burst through the middle for a 55-yard run that set up a field goal. Graham finished with 172 yards on 24 carries and a touchdown against a defense that held Oklahoma to 15 net rushing yards the week before.
"[That play] just let everybody know we could run," Graham said. "I thought our run game was very good."
Graham scored his touchdown late in the second quarter on a 16-yard run by either juking or just running over several Notre Dame defenders down the sideline.
Pitt held a 10-6 lead at the break and upped it to 20-6 in the third quarter. The defense, too, frustrated Golson so much that Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly turned to junior Tommy Rees for a few series in the second and third quarters. After Rees threw an interception to Eric Williams late in the third quarter, Kelly went back to Golson.
In the final 15 minutes of regulation, though, Notre Dame outscored the Panthers, 14-0. Pitt let Golson move around and make plays on the ground to keep Notre Dame drives alive. In the fourth quarter and overtime, Golson had 59 rushing yards. Notre Dame, as a team, totaled 118 rushing yards over that span.
"We did have a little trouble with [keeping Golson contained,]" Trebitz said. "He's a very good player, very athletic. He can run."
In the end, Golson finished off the game with his feet, with a 6-yard scramble to convert a third down on Notre Dame's winning drive, and a 1-yard quarterback sneak to seal the win.
When asked if he thought Pitt had made enough plays to win the game, Graham took an honest approach.
"No, because we lost," Graham said. "I would say that we played hard, we left it all out on the field. They made a couple more plays than us to win the game."
Sam Werner: email@example.com or on Twitter @SWernerPG First Published November 4, 2012 4:00 AM