SOUTH BEND, Ind. -
Down 20-6 in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame was going to need some big plays and a little luck to stay undefeated and keep its national title hopes alive.
It got just enough of both.
Everett Golson scored on a quarterback sneak in the third overtime as the fourth-ranked Fighting Irish came back from a 14-point deficit and beat Pittsburgh 26-23.
Notre Dame (9-0) is off to its best start since 1993, when it finished the season ranked No. 2. Pitt (4-5) missed a potential game-winning field goal in overtime.
Golson re-entered the game after being replaced by Tommy Rees and threw an 11-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter as Notre Dame cut Pitt's lead to 20-12. Notre Dame's chances for a comeback appeared to end when Pitt cornerback K'Waun Williams intercepted a pass by Golson in the end zone.
But the Irish defense held, and Golson completed a 45-yard pass to DaVaris Daniels to the Pitt 5. Golson then threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Theo Riddick and ran in for the two-point conversion to tie the game.
Notre Dame avoided the fate of the 2002 team, the last Irish team to start a season 8-0, which was upset by Boston College 14-7. But just barely. A victory seemed unlikely when they fell behind 20-6 late in the third quarter, again when Williams intercepted Golson's pass in the end zone again when running back Cierre Wood fumbled as he attempted to dive into the end zone in the second overtime and Pitt safety Jarred Holley recovered.
But the Irish kept finding life, the last time when Kevin Harper missed a 33-yard field goal wide right.
Golson was 23-of-42 passing for 227 yards and rushed for 74 yards as well, as he kept the Pitt defense off balance. The Irish needed the big plays to overcome a stellar performance from Pitt's Ray Graham, who rushing for 172 yards, including runs of 55 and 48 yards.
Graham continually ran through Notre Dame tackles and the Panthers opened a lead by taking advantage of Irish mistakes.
Graham, one of three Pitt players allowed to play despite facing misdemeanor charges, gave the Panthers a 10-6 lead when he ran past an attempted tackle by Notre Dame safety Matthias Farley and sprinted along the sideline for the score. It was just the second rushing touchdown allowed by the Irish defense this season.
The Panthers went ahead 17-6 after Pitt linebacker Eric Williams intercepted Rees at midfield. Tino Sunseri threw a 43-yard pass to J.P. Holtz, then a 9-yard TD pass to Holtz. The Panthers made it 20-6 on a 21-yard field goal by Harper.
Sunseri was 19-of-29 passing for 164 yards and was sacked five times.
The Panthers were hoping to follow in the footsteps of the 2007 Pitt team, which was 4-7 when it won 13-9 at No. 2 West Virginia on Dec. 1 to knock the Mountaineers out of the national championship game, but just couldn't find a way to hold on.
All five Notre Dame home games this season have been decided by a touchdown or less, while the four games away from Notre Dame have been decided by an average margin of 28 points.
Coach Brian Kelly had urged his team to play better at home, and they dominated statistically early on, amassing a season-high 145 yards in the first quarter and had a time of possession advantage of 11:32 to 3:28. But they were hurt by five penalties, including a pass interference call that kept alive a drive by Pitt that led to a field goal and a holding call on a long run by Wood.
Notre Dame appeared to take a 10-3 lead early in the second quarter on a 2-yard run by Riddick, but a videotape replay ruled he was down at the 1. Two plays later on third-and-goal from the 1, Riddick was stopped by Pittsburgh linebacker Shane Gordon for a 4-yard loss.
The Irish had to settle for a 20-yard field goal by Kyle Brindza. Brindza later missed a 43-yard field goal wide right on the final play of the first half.
While acknowledging their mistakes, Kelly said he was proud of his players for working hard and pulling out the victory.
"Three overtimes," he said. "That's good stuff."