Notre Dame might have used up its season's quota of Irish luck today in winning a game it seemed determined to lose until the final 11 minute.
The Irish pulled out the 19-9 victory over Pittsburgh only after the Panthers lost their potential All-America quarterback, fumbled four times in the fourth period and got so confused on offense that they had trouble deciding what plays to run.
Notre Dame might have been ranked No. 1 by United Press International going into the nationally televised contest, but only its most biased rooters left the game feeling the Irish had lived up to the rating.
"There is no doubt in my mind that we were the better team," said Pitt defensive tackle Randy Holloway. Nor was there any doubt in coach Jackie Sherrill's mind that his defending national champions would have won had quarterback Matt Cavanaugh not fractured his left wrist late in the first quarter.
"Even with Matt out, we still didn't get behind until all those (fourth period) mistakes," said a despondent Sherrill. "With Matt, we are a great football team one of the best in the country. Without him, we are in trouble."
Cavanaugh was the one player on the 85-man Pitt roster who the Panthers couldn't afford to lose. He was the only experienced quarterback and his passing was as much a key to the team's offensive hopes this year as Tony Dorsett's running was last season.
His value was apparent today. With Cavanaugh in the lineup, Pitt clearly dominated a veteran Notre Dame defense. On the play in which he was hurt, he completed a touchdown pass that gave Pitt a 7-0 lead, a margin it would expand minutes later to 9-0 after a safety. And Sherill was convinced "we were just starting to get things going the way we wanted on offense; it would have got better."
Instead, it go worse.
Without Cavanaugh, Sherrill had to turn to sophomore Wayne Adams, who never had taken a snap from center in a college game, and senior Tom Yewcic, a walk-on who played briefly last season.
Both were nervous and ineffective. But Pitt's defense was so quick and so determined that the Panthers were able to cling to a 9-6 lead until that fateful fourth period. And then the quarterback problems created a nightmare of mistakes.
First, Adams fumbled a center snap, with Notre Dame recovering on the Pitt 26. But the Panthers held, stopping Irish quarterback Rusty Lisch an inch short of a first down.
But Yewcic fumbled the ball right back, with Notre Dame recovering on the Pitt 16 this time. The Irish settled for a field goal of 35 yards from Tom Reeve to tie it at 9-all with 10:45 left.
It now seemed only a matter of time before Pitt would again cough up the ball. The mistake came three minutes later when Adams tossed an errant pitch on an option play and Notre Dame pounced on the ball at the 16.
Notre Dame played it safe, ramming the ball up the middle until Reeve, the school's all-time field-goal kicker, could come in and connect from 26 yards to give Notre Dame its first lead, 12-9. with 5:42 to go.
Pittsburgh's collapse wasn't complete. On the next series, Gordon Jones caught an Adams pass, then lost possession, the ball bouncing back toward the Pitt goal. Notre Dame once again gained possession, this time at the Panther 11. Three plays later, Terry Burick scored from the four and the victory was complete.
Not even Irish coach Dan Devine was impressed with the triumph. "We are definitely short of a national championship off this performance."
All Pitt could do was look at the facts: with Cavanaugh, it gained 80 yards in the first quarter: without him, it stumbled to a minus-11 yards for the rest of the game.
Neither Adams nor Yewcic had practiced much with the first string in preseason workouts - "you can't anticipate injuries," said Sherrill - and both had difficulty with quarterbacking basics today. Adams had problems mastering the snap and Yewcic was plagued just as much by the intracacies of the option.
"We're an option team and we had to junk all our option plays finally," said Sherrill. "We wound up not having much left to use late in the game."
The result was a wasted effort by the magnificent Pitt defense, which had been devastated along the frontline by graduation. but don't tell that to Notre Dame.
It might gave been because of early-season jitters, or possibly because the Irish miss suspended running back Al Hunter more than anyone anticipated. Or maybe Notre Dame lacks the overall quickness of a line offensive unit. Whatever the reason, its performance was so unimpressive that Devine was left to declare, in strong terms for him. "Our offense is still very weak."
Quarterback Lisch will have to improve. His 10-for-18, 106-yard afternoon was marked by inconsistency, just as the Irish offense lacked sparkle.
Its only real bright moment came on eight-play, 61-yard scoring march near the end of the first half. Lisch completed the drive with a five-yard toss to tight end Ken MacAfee.
That score offset Cavanaugh's 12-yard TD completion to Jones. As Cavanaugh tossed the pass, he was engulfed in a bear hug by defensive end Willie Fry. When he finally got up. Cavanaugh was clutching his left wrist. Locker room Xrays showed it was fractured and he will be sidelined at least six weeks.
As Adams sat at his locker, still in his game uniform long after his teammates had showered, Sherrill was telling a group of reporters that he might have to use a freshman quarterback next week.
"Our defense played well enough to win six games, it couldn't have been better," he said. "If we only could have had Matt the whole time. What a shame to lose him."
Devine, surprisingly, agreed. "Nobody is more upset about Cavanaugh's injury than me," he said. "But I know one thing. That performance by the Pitt defense is one of the best I've ever seen."
Luckily for the Irish, the Pitt defense wasn't enough. At least, not this time.