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Down 14 points in fourth quarter, Notre Dame rallies past Pittsburgh in 3 overtimes

By Brian Hamilton, Chicago Tribune –

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Everett Golson dove underneath the pile, and the pile swallowed him whole. Even as noise then rolled through the place like an unending thunderclap, even as spine-starching evening air crackled with a cocktail of disbelief and glee, even as the pile lurched back and forth, the Notre Dame quarterback stayed disappeared.

Somewhere in the thicket of bodies, Golson encountered center Braxston Cave. Moments earlier, the line pushed and the quarterback crossed the end zone plane and crossed over into delirium, and now Golson had another request.

We did it, the quarterback told Cave. Now get me out of here.

When Golson emerged at last, back-lit by the stadium’s glow, he leaped and screamed and punched the air after a 29-26, three-overtime victory over Pittsburgh. It was an exasperating day of the ordinary turned extraordinary and back, of title hopes for BCS No. 3 Notre Dame reduced from a 100-foot bonfire to smoldering ash and then sparked again.

The Irish are 9-0, they are still in the national championship hunt and they were happy to get out alive on Saturday.

“This win was needed,” Golson said, after starting, getting benched and then ultimately throwing for 227 yards, rushing for 74 and accounting for three touchdowns. “I like to think this is what good teams do, coming together and handling major adversity.”

That doesn’t begin to cover it. Notre Dame was down 14 points entering the fourth quarter. Driving for the game-tying score, Golson threw an interception in the end zone. After forcing overtime, tailback Cierre Wood fumbled at the goal-line in the second extra session, setting up Pittsburgh (4-5) with a chance to win.

There were a mere six points in three quarters, there was more shuffling between Golson and Tommy Rees, there was a defense that surrendered 172 yards to Panthers tailback Ray Graham, there was a missed field goal and a missed extra point. But there was no loss. There was barely an explanation.

“Maybe taking this week lightly a little bit,” receiver TJ Jones said. “Thinking maybe we could not play our A game, maybe play our B game and still get the W. It took us a while to catch on and click. Once we figured out it was going to be a battle, we started to get things going.”

So here is how Notre Dame saved a season: First, Golson recovered from that fourth-quarter pick to toss a 5-yard touchdown pass to Theo Riddick with 2 minutes, 11 seconds left and then to scramble in for the tying two-point conversion.

The first overtime passed with matching field goals, and then came Wood’s fumble in the second overtime. And then came Pittsburgh’s missed 33-yard chip shot field goal to win it.

“Whenever you have a top 5 team like that on the ropes and you have a chance to end the game,” Panthers quarterback Tino Sunseri said, “you have to take advantage of it.”

Notre Dame then ended it in overtime No. 3, allowing a field goal but then marching to Golson’s winning sneak from one foot out. It left Riddick to hop in circles near midfield, it left Irish defensive end Stephon Tuitt to blow kisses to the crowd and, of most importance, it left Notre Dame scarred but somehow unscathed after its biggest fourth quarter comeback since 2006.

“I told them they have to understand that everybody they play will play their absolute best,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “They can’t just highlight certain teams on their schedule. That’s a lesson learned.”

Learned the hard way and the easy way all at once. As he jogged toward the student section, Golson smiled and shouted through the scattering din.

“Nine-and-oh, baby!” he exclaimed. “Hey hey hey!”

He ran on to more celebrating, unlikely to forget how he and the Irish got there Saturday.

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