South Bend, IN – Everett Golson was benched at halftime, returned when the fourth-ranked Fighting Irish faced their biggest deficit of the season and kept Notre Dame's title hopes alive by orchestrating a sensational 29-26 comeback win over Pittsburgh in three overtimes.
Golson threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes and sent things to overtime by running in a two-point conversion with 2:11 remaining, bringing the Irish all the way back from a 14-point deficit.
After trading field goals in the first overtime, Notre Dame senior running back Cierre Wood fumbled the ball while trying to dive over the goal line.
Pittsburgh recovered in the end zone, but with the game on his foot, Kevin Harper missed a 33-yard try wide to the right to keep the roller coaster ride going.
"We had an opportunity there and a golden opportunity. We didn't get it done," Pitt head coach Paul Chryst said. "I thought a lot of guys put it all on the line, and that's all can you ask the team to do, and it's a tough one because that's a good team we played."
Harper put the pressure back on Notre Dame by nailing a 44-yarder on the first possession of the third OT, but two first downs moved the ball to the one, and Golson bulled his way in on a sneak for the decisive score and the Irish's second win in overtime this season.
Notre Dame (9-0), ranked third in the most recent installment of the BCS standings, improved to 9-0 for the first time since 1993.
Golson ran for 74 yards and threw for 227 more on 23-of-42 passes. He was also picked off in the end zone in a thrill-a-minute fourth quarter.
"He got a chance to go back in there and got the game ball tonight," Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of his freshman quarterback. "He could have kept his head down and said I can't help us. He wanted to go back in there and help his football team. So that's a learning step for him."
Pittsburgh (4-5), looking for its third straight win, forced three turnovers and scored the most points Notre Dame had given up all season.
Ray Graham, who along with teammates Devin Street and Lafayette Pitts, was charged with simple assault and conspiracy earlier this week but ruled eligible after denying any involvement with the situation, gashed one of the nation's best run defenses for 172 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries.
Tino Sunseri completed 19-of-29 passes for 164 yards and a score in the loss.
For the third time in four games, Notre Dame trailed at halftime, this time by a 10-6 count, and Kelly opted to bench Golson in favor of Tommy Rees coming out of the break.
Rees lasted two series after throwing an interception directly to linebacker Eric Williams, who returned the pick to the Pitt 44-yard line. Two plays later, J.P. Holtz caught a screen pass and rumbled 43 yards to the 9-yard line. Sunseri and Holtz hooked up again on the next snap, this time in the end zone for a 17-6 cushion with 5:52 left in the third.
After a Notre Dame punt, Graham ran left and sprinted 48 yards deep into enemy territory. Despite having 1st-and-goal at the two, the Panthers settled for a 21-yard field goal by Harper.
A fourth-down run by Golson, an overturned fumble and a defensive pass interference penalty kept a Notre Dame drive alive early in the fourth. The extended possession ended in T.J. Jones catching a screen pass and going in for an 11-yard touchdown, though Kyle Brindza missed the extra point to keep the Irish trailing, 20-12.
Golson led the Irish 91 yards on their next drive, only to throw an interception in the end zone with 3:59 remaining.
Notre Dame got the ball back again less than a minute later at midfield, and, with plenty of time in the pocket, Golson flung a pass downfield that DaVaris Daniels ran under for a 45-yard pickup to the five. On the next play, Golson ran to his right and found Theo Riddick in the end zone with 2:11 showing.
Golson again was flushed to the right on the two-point conversion, shifted upfield, lunged for the goal line and reached the ball over the plane to tie things.
Neither team did much with the ball in the remaining regulation time, and Harper and Brindza exchanged 41- and 37-yard kicks, respectively, in the first OT.
"When people play Notre Dame, it's going to be a war," Irish star linebacker Manti Te'o said. "It was ugly at times and beautiful at times and that is college football. I'm just glad the outcome favored us."
Notre Dame held the ball for nearly 16 minutes in its first two drives and came away with field goals both times.
Brindza booted a 37-yarder midway through the first quarter, then hit one from 20 yards out early in the second after instant replay overturned a Riddick touchdown run from the two.
Graham was key in both of Pitt's scoring drives in the first half, starting with a 55-yard run on the Panthers' first play from scrimmage to set up Harper's 39-yard field goal in the opening quarter.
Late in the second, Graham caught a screen pass and took it upfield for a 13- yard gain on 3rd-and-9 to keep a Pitt driving moving, and ended it by taking a sweep to the right, bulling over outside linebacker Ishaq Williams along the sideline and running in for a 16-yard TD with 3:55 left in the half.
Brindza missed a 43-yard kick wide to the right at the halftime gun.
Riddick led Notre Dame with 84 yards on 22 carries, while Daniels led all receivers with seven catches for 86 yards ... Rees threw for 65 yards on 6- of-11 attempts ... Notre Dame has not allowed a touchdown in the first quarter this season ... Graham has 10 100-yard rushing games in his career ... Pitt is 1-14 against Notre Dame teams ranked in the top-5 ... The Irish have won three straight in the series ... Notre Dame visits Boston College next Saturday, while Pitt resumes its Big East slate against Connecticut the day before.