Pitt's near-upset of No. 5 Notre Dame shows the Irish's playoff path isn't a breeze

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Notre Dame‘s still in a great position to get to the College Football Playoff. But Week 7 showed making the playoff may be a little harder than a lot of people thought.

The Irish trailed for most of Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh before escaping 19-14 thanks to a fourth-quarter touchdown and a ridiculous fake punt call by Pitt. But, Notre Dame then committed a gaffe of its own to give Pitt the ball back with 2:35 left and a chance to steal the win.

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Thankfully, for the Irish and its fans, Pitt’s drive went backward. But there’s no way to spin it, this was an ugly game for Notre Dame.

“I think it’s a good wakeup call that you’ve got to play each and every week,” Brian Kelly told NBC after the game. “We didn’t play our best but we found a way to win.”

Pitt tried bizarre fake punt

Notre Dame took the lead with 5:43 left when quarterback Ian Book found wide receiver Miles Boykin for a 35-yard touchdown. After getting the ball back, Pitt chose to go to a punt formation on fourth down with four yards to go at its own 45. The team dressed backup quarterback Jeff George Jr. in a No. 96 jersey and lined him up at punter. Notre Dame kept its defense on the field. George rolled to his right and found no one open. Notre Dame got the ball back.

But the Irish gave it right back after an odd fourth-down call with less than three minutes to go. Notre Dame needed just one yard and rolled Book out to the right. He missed his tight end wide open and ended up getting sacked as he neared the sideline.

Pitt didn’t gain any yardage on its final drive after Kenny Pickett was sacked, threw an incomplete pass, threw an illegal forward pass and then threw another incomplete pass on fourth down.

Irish running game handcuffed

Notre Dame officially had 38 carries for 79 yards. Dexter Williams had just 13 carries for 31 yards after running for 339 yards in his first two games of the season.

Book also threw two interceptions despite a 26-of-32 passing day for 264 yards.

Pitt took a 14-6 lead to start the second half when Maurice Ffrench took the second half kickoff back 99 yards for a touchdown. That was far and away Pitt’s special teams highlight. Kicker Alex Kessman made two field goals of over 50 yards a week ago. He missed both of his field goal attempts on Saturday.

No ranked teams remaining on Notre Dame’s schedule

If Saturday’s game was a hiccup — and good teams have those every now and then — there’s no reason to panic. Pitt has a habit of giving good teams scares anyway. The Panthers beat No. 3 Clemson in 2016 and No. 2 Miami in 2017. Had they pulled off the upset on Saturday, Notre Dame would have simply been the third top-five team to lose to Pitt in three years.

But Pitt was also arguably the worst opponent Notre Dame has left on a schedule that doesn’t include teams currently in the Top 25. If Saturday’s game is a sign of things to come, a loss could be on the horizon.

And because there are no ranked teams — at the moment, anyway — left on the schedule, there’s limited opportunity for a résumé-boosting win over the stretch run outside of USC in the final week of the season. If Notre Dame keeps winning, things should work themselves out playoff-wise. But it’s natural to be less confident that the Irish will keep winning after watching Saturday’s performance.

Ian Book found Miles Boykin for the go-ahead TD pass. (Getty)
Ian Book found Miles Boykin for the go-ahead TD pass. (Getty)

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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