Notre Dame-Pittsburgh Preview

The Associated Press

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) -- - Notre Dame has shown a flair for winning close games of late.

Its recent meetings against Pittsburgh have been no exception.

The 24th-ranked Fighting Irish have won the past three meetings against the Panthers by a total of 12 points, and could be headed for another tight finish Saturday at Heinz Field against a desperate Pitt team.

Since the start of the 2012 season, the Fighting Irish (7-2) have won 10 straight games decided by a touchdown or less, tying coach Brian Kelly with Knute Rockne for the second-longest such streak in school history.

But Notre Dame was favored by two or more touchdowns for half of those close ones.

''So you're saying I haven't covered and you're upset about that?'' Kelly quipped Tuesday.

Kelly said he understands the perception that perhaps the Irish haven't won some games by as large a margin as expected, but doesn't agree with the premise.

''Winning in college football is hard to do each and every week,'' he said. ''Teams play us so hard. Guys from Navy in tears, grown men crying after a game they put so much effort and their soul into the game. It's hard to win.''

But not all teams are having as much difficulty as Notre Dame has experienced with some of its lesser opponents. The Irish were favored by 20 1/2 points at Purdue on Sept. 14, and then scored 21 points early in the fourth quarter to win 31-24.

Next up for the Irish is Pittsburgh (4-4). The Panthers have lost two in a row, most recently falling 21-10 at Georgia Tech last Saturday.

Pittsburgh has had a history of keeping things quite close against Notre Dame, however. The last five meetings between the Irish and the Panthers have been decided by six points or fewer, perhaps none more dramatic than Notre Dame's 29-26 triple-overtime win last November that kept its national title hopes alive.

Kelly had another three games against Pitt while he was at Cincinnati that were decided by a touchdown or less.

''I think it's one of those games where you know you're going to go in and it's going to be a fight,'' Kelly said.

Kelly said when he arrived at Notre Dame he had heard that one of the challenges for the iconic program was that opponents were usually more excited about playing the Irish than the Irish were about facing the opponent. He said he doesn't believe that's true, pointing to last week's game when Notre Dame was fortunate to hang on for a 38-34 victory against Navy, a game where the Irish were favored by 15.5 points.

''There is a lot of pressure at Notre Dame, a lot of scrutiny, there were nine lead changes in that game against Navy, they were down in the fourth quarter, they had to come back in the fourth quarter, and they had to hold the lead,'' he said. ''Those kids can take that with them because that takes a lot to do those things. I'm proud of the way they competed and won that football game."

Pitt tight end J.P. Holtz, on the other hand, didn't seem to take any pride from his team going toe-to-toe with the Irish in South Bend last season - especially considering his team blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead.

"Personally, I don't like Notre Dame at all," Holtz said Monday. "It's going to make me play harder."

Pressed on where that animosity comes from considering Holtz was recruited by the Irish and claims he had an "awesome" visit to South Bend, the sophomore shrugged his shoulders.

"I just think they're really cocky and their coaches are really cocky," Holtz said. "So, I just don't like that."

There's little cockiness around the Panthers' offense these days, though.

They were held to minus-5 yards rushing by the Yellow Jackets, who sacked quarterback Tom Savage five times and shut down Pitt on three consecutive second-half possessions when the Panthers had a chance to take the lead.

It's become a familiar pattern for Pitt. In their last four games against FBS opponents, the Panthers have scored just 54 points.

"Every position needs more consistency," Holtz said. "We have to come together every play, not one out of every three plays. It has to be every play for the offense to be good."

Pitt's offense ranks 103rd in the nation in total yards (345.9 per game), but Holtz knows a win Saturday could propel the Panthers toward a sixth consecutive bowl berth.

"It's an awesome opportunity for us to get this season back on track," Holtz said. "We lost two close ones but everything set in front of us. We're playing a really good team and we can get this thing going if we win this game."

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