In South Bend, Pitt almost added to its incredible upset history against top teams


No. 5 Notre Dame is still unbeaten, having gotten past Pitt at home on Saturday, 19-14. It was really similar to a game the two teams played six years earlier.

Pitt announced immediately that it meant business. The Panthers forced a stop on the game’s opening possession, then took the ball and went 88 yards in 17 plays (and 9:43 of clock time) to take a lead they’d carry into the fourth quarter. They intercepted Ian Book twice in the first half and never let the 21-point home favorites open things up.

The Pitt upset bid fell short when — after the teams traded bad fourth-down decisions late in the fourth quarter — the Panthers moved backward on four plays. They’d gotten the ball at their own 36, down 5 with two and a half minutes to play. The loss dropped Pitt to 3-4.

The Panthers have shown a knack, especially when they haven’t been all that good, for beating top-tier title contenders or giving them hearty scares. That included Notre Dame the last time the Irish got close to a national championship, so this wasn’t entirely new.

Let’s run through the history of why elite teams should not at all want iffy Pitt teams. Here’s all the stuff this century leading up to South Bend on Saturday:

2002: Pitt 28, No. 3 Virginia Tech 21

The Hokies were 8-0 when Pitt visited on the first weekend in November. Yet Pitt’s win in this game was the start of a 2-4 Hokies finish that turned them from frontline contenders to afterthoughts in their second year A.V. (After Vick).

Pitt would finish 9-4 with an Insight Bowl win, ranked 19th (better than in any of the other years you’ll see on this list).

2003: No. 25 Pitt 31, No. 5 Virginia Tech 28

The Hokies were 7-1, coming off an upset of No. 2 Miami. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall was suspended for the first half, and Pitt was pretty decent this year. This was even a College GameDay game. (There was a time when GameDay went to Pitt, yeah.) The Panthers were just 1-point underdogs on their home field, and they won on a 2-yard Lousaka Polite touchdown run with 48 seconds left, after Tech — which had been leading — turned the ball over on downs at the Pitt 30 because Frank Beamer didn’t wanna try a long field goal.

Pitt finished 8-5 and unranked.

2007: Pitt 13, No. 2 West Virginia 9

The centerpiece of this tradition and the most shocking rivalry upset of all time. Let WVU fullback Owen Schmitt explain 10 years later what a dagger this loss was:

There was a lot of hype, and then it just seemed like every week, shit was just falling into place. You know what I mean? And teams were losing that needed to lose for us to move up, and it was happening. And then you get to the fucking last game of the season and blow it against the shittiest fucking team in the fucking world.

The Mountaineers, a home win against a 4-7 team away from clinching a berth in the BCS Championship, instead lost one of the two best title shots the program’s ever had.

2008: Pitt 26, No. 10 USF 21

The Bulls were unbeaten, coming off a year in which they’d reached No. 2 in the AP Poll. At this point, they were still in a conference that wouldn’t get them shut out of of the title picture. They lost at home to Pitt, then finished 8-5. Pitt finished 9-4 and unranked.

2012: No. 4 Notre Dame 29, Pitt 26 (3OT)

Much like the 2018 meeting, Pitt didn’t actually win this game, but a team that finished 6-7 and played in the BBVA Compass Bowl for the third year in a row still went to South Bend and exposed a sham BCS Championship participant team weeks before Alabama did.

A missed Pitt 33-yard field goal that would’ve ended that game is the reason the country was subjected to Notre Dame playing Bama in the BCS title game, actually.

2016: Pitt 42, Penn State 39

A bit of a weird case, admittedly: Penn State wasn’t thought to be that good when it visited Heinz Field in Week 2. But a Pitt team that finished 8-5 with a Pinstripe Bowl loss still beat the eventual Big Ten champion, one of two losses that kept PSU out of the Playoff.

Indeed, Pitt took title shots away from its two biggest historic rivals within a decade. Pitt’s combined record in those two years: 13-12.

2016: Pitt 43, No. 3 Clemson 42

Later the same year, Pitt became the only team to beat the eventual national champs. A handful of Deshaun Watson mistakes helped, but Pitt inexplicably had Clemson’s defense guessing all day.

2017: Pitt 24, No. 2 Miami 14

Most of the people at Heinz Field on the Saturday after Thanksgiving were dressed as yellow seats. But Miami’s offense couldn’t get anything going, and the Canes took their first L after getting off to a 10-0 start. Pat Narduzzi guaranteed a win at halftime of the Panthers’ fourth straight win against a top-three foe while unranked.

Pitt still fell short of bowl eligibility.

So, Notre Dame’s merely learned something it (and various other top-five teams in recent years) already knew:

Don’t play Pitt when you’re in the national title conversation. Just avoid it.

But by not needing triple overtime this time, maybe the Irish have made progress?

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