Pitt beats Notre Dame, 28-21

Given the recent history between these two teams, the fact that the game Saturday night came down to the final minutes shouldn't have been surprising.

What was different about this edition of Pitt's series against Notre Dame -- the latest in a matchup recently defined by wild results -- was that the Pitt came out of this one victorious.

Ray Vinopal had two fourth-quarter interceptions to key the Panthers' 28-21 upset of the No. 24 Irish Saturday night at Heinz Field.

"Beating Notre Dame is a pretty big deal," Vinopal said. "It's awesome to see the seniors so happy and emotional after the game. That's what you play for."

The win moves Pitt to within one victory of securing bowl eligibility for the sixth consecutive year.

It also provided some revenge for the heartbreaking, 29-26 loss a year ago in triple-overtime at Notre Dame. Pitt players and coaches said all week that the 2012 game was in the past, but receiver Devin Street admitted afterwards that this win was a little bit sweeter. He said it was "for sure" the biggest win of his five-year career at Pitt.

"That's how we always come out against Notre Dame," he said. "It's a rivalry, and that's how we approach it."

Vinopal's first interception came early in the fourth quarter, when Notre Dame (7-3) was bearing down on the goal line and looked poised to take the lead in a back-and-forth contest. Instead, Irish quarter back Tommy Rees floated a pass into the end zone that Vinopal came down with.

The Panthers (5-4) were forced to punt, but, on Notre Dame's second play, Rees again lofted a pass over the middle that Vinopal caught and nearly returned all the way.

He had to settle for a 40-yard return to the Notre Dame 5, and running back James Conner scored on a 1-yard run two plays later to give Pitt its first lead ... and the only one it would need.

"I'm so proud of Ray," Street said. "Ray has gotten a lot of criticism over the season and that guy, he just perseveres through adversity, and that's what this team's about."

The teams traded quick scores midway through the third quarter to inject some offense into a game that hadn't seen much of it up to that point.

Pitt made it 14-14 with 3:47 left in the third when Conner punched in a two-yard touchdown run to cap a 13-play, 69-yard drive. The Panthers faced a fourth-and-5 from the Notre Dame 31 and converted it when Irish cornerback Bennett Jackson was whistled for interference on a deep pass from Tom Savage to Street.

The tie lasted only 18 seconds. On the first play of Notre Dame's ensuing drive, Rees hit TJ Jones streaking down the middle past Pitt cornerback K'Waun Williams. Jones caught the ball at the Pitt 45 and sped the rest of the way for an 80-yard touchdown that gave Notre Dame a 21-14 lead.

That didn't last much longer, though. Pitt responded with a three-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 63-yard touchdown pass from Savage to Street. The teams went to the fourth quarter tied at 21-21.

Savage finished 22 of 35 for 243 yards and two touchdowns. Most importantly, he didn't throw any interceptions and was sacked just once. The Panthers were able to establish their presence up front against Notre Dame's injury riddled defensive line. Pitt ran the ball for 112 yards and gave Savage plenty of time to make throws.

"Our offensive line controlled the whole game, and it was fun to watch," Savage said.

The first half consisted mostly of the two teams exchanging punts, but Notre Dame got on the board first late in the first. Facing fourth-and-4 from Pitt's 34, coach Brian Kelly thought about attempting a 51-yard field goal, but went for it instead. The Irish converted, and, two plays later, Rees found DaVaris Daniels in the back-right corner of the end zone for a 7-0 lead.

The Panthers caught a break early in the second when Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt was ejected for a targeting penalty. Savage scrambled to his right and was going down when Tuitt, considered one of the top NFL prospects among college defensive linemen this season, lowered his helmet and made contact with Savage. After review, the ejection stood, and the Irish played the rest of the game without him.

Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG First Published November 9, 2013 11:52 PM

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