PITTSBURGH — Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly knew his team’s margin for error remained thin even as the 24th-ranked Fighting Irish put together a four-game winning streak to build momentum for an outside shot at a Bowl Championship Series berth.
Two Tommy Rees passes proved just how narrow it had become.
Rees threw a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions to Pittsburgh’s Ray Vinopal, allowing the Panthers to rally for a 28-21 victory on Saturday night and quash any notion the Irish (7-3) had of earning a BCS bid for the second straight year.
“Our mantra is you can’t start winning until you stop losing and we did things tonight that caused losing,” Kelly said.
Notre Dame extended two Pitt touchdown drives with major penalties, fumbled the ball deep inside Panther territory and inexplicably failed to jump on a fourth-quarter fumble by Pitt quarterback Tom Savage that could have swung momentum back in its favor.
“We made mistakes, they didn’t,” Notre Dame wide receiver TJ Jones said. “We didn’t execute when we needed to, they did.”
James Conner ran for two short touchdowns for the Panthers (5-4), including the go-ahead score with 9:36 remaining. Pitt’s defense made it stand up, giving coach Paul Chryst the biggest victory of his two-year tenure when cornerback Anthony Gonzalez batted aside a fourth-down heave by Rees with 2:26 to play.
“You would like to say that we get up for every game, but we can’t be naive about it,” Savage said. “It’s Notre Dame. It’s a fun game. We’re in prime time, and this is every college kid’s dream to go out there and play in front of everyone like that and come out with a win.”
Savage passed for 243 yards and two scores to Devin Street as the Panthers exacted a bit of revenge. Pitt nearly upset Notre Dame a year ago, blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead in South Bend then allowing the Irish to escape in triple overtime, a victory that kept Notre Dame’s perfect regular season alive.
This time, Pitt kept its composure. This time, the Irish’s vanished.
The Irish had won 10 straight games decided by seven points or less, the second-longest streak in school history.
It ended after a pair of regrettable decisions by Rees, who threw for 318 yards and two touchdowns but also struggled with his accuracy, completing just 18 of 39 passes.
Notre Dame was driving for a go-ahead score early in the fourth quarter when Rees floated a pass to the back of the end zone that Vinopal leapt in front of to end the threat.
Pitt punted, but Rees gave it right back. He tried to go deep down the seam but overshot his receiver. The ball sailed into Vinopal’s hands and the safety returned it 45 yards to the Notre Dame 5. Two plays later Conner ran up the middle to put Pittsburgh in front to stay.
“You can’t turn the ball over and I take responsibility for that,” Rees said. “You know, when you put your defense in compromising situations like that, it’s hard for your defense to make stops.”
Not that the defense didn’t have its own issues. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt was ejected in the first quarter when he was flagged for targeting Savage with a helmet-to-helmet hit. The drive ended with a 3-yard touchdown pass from Savage to Devin Street.
A pass interference penalty on fourth down in the third quarter helped Pitt tie the game at 14. The biggest miscue came in the fourth when Prince Shembo drilled Savage, jarring the ball loose and sending it rolling to the sideline in Pitt territory. The ball rolled for several seconds without a whistle and without a single member of the Irish chasing after it. Pitt’s Isaac Bennett alertly pounced on it and the Panthers eventually punted.
Rees’ second pick came two plays later and Pitt was in control.
“It’s on everybody,” Kelly said. “To a large degree, the execution was very poor.”
Jones caught six passes for 149 yards and a touchdown and ran for another, but Notre Dame also fumbled while trying to score a touchdown in the second quarter. The Irish are off next week and finish up the regular season with games against BYU and at Stanford.
“We go back to square one,” Jones said. “No one’s happy. You’re thinking about mistakes that cost us the game. We should be 8-2 right now.”