SOUTH BEND — A win is a win. That's the mentality around South Bend tonight.
Notre Dame only led for 5 minutes and 43 seconds Saturday, but it was the last 5:43 as the No. 5 Irish hung on to defeat Pittsburgh, 19-14.
Trailing 14-12, Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book threw a perfect pass to wide receiver Miles Boykin, who hauled it in for the 35-yard touchdown with just under six minutes to go in the game.
"It was just a simple post route. He was playing press-man, and I don't know if they brought pressure or not. Ian was able to throw it up there, and I just had to go up there and make a play," Boykin said of the game-winning score. "I didn't even see him throw it. I just saw the ball in the air."
Book's final line looked up to the standard he's played to in his first three starts. The junior finished 26-of-32 for 264 yards and two touchdowns.
Stats can be deceiving, though. Book looked rattled a lot in Saturday's contest, especially in the first half.
Book threw two interceptions and was sacked three times. The offense struggled to score points, as they settled for two Justin Yoon field goals in the first half. Book's second interception came early in the third quarter. Notre Dame was firmly on upset alert with less than three minutes to go in the third quarter.
"Pittsburgh's got a good defense. We knew that, and we were preparing for that all week," Book said. "Some of the times, I was a little antsy. I've got to stand in there a little better, and that's something I have to work on."
Both Panthers touchdowns Saturday were off errors from the Irish special teams.
Notre Dame forced Pitt to punt on the first drive of the game, but an offside call gave the Panthers a first down. Pitt capitalized, marching down the field for a touchdown. Qadree Ollison's 9-yard score made it 7-0 Panthers. It was a 17-play, 88-yard drive that lasted nearly 10 minutes.
The other Pitt touchdown came on the first play of the second half. Maurice Ffrench returned the opening kickoff 99 yards, eluding multiple Irish defenders to make it 14-6 Pittsburgh. It was the largest deficit Notre Dame had faced all season.
Outside of the opening drive, though, the Panthers' offense had a hard time moving on the Notre Dame defense. Pittsburgh only had 154 yards following the first quarter.
"We fell back on our training. Coaches made the adjustments, got the line movements where they needed to be so the linebackers could flow and make plays," Irish linebacker Drue Tranquill said. "We did that, and you saw that with the three-and-outs and four-and-outs we had down the stretch."
Julian Okwara had a career night, recording seven quarterback hurries and six tackles. The defensive end had a huge tackle-for-loss on Ollison on a third down in the fourth quarter to halt a potential Pittsburgh scoring drive.
"MVP ... He's a guy that's been doing that all season for us," Tranquill said of Okwara's performance. "He's a selfless player, maybe our most talented pass rusher. It's got to be frustrating when it doesn't show up in the stat sheet. That's what a championship defense is. It's one guy every week maybe making all the plays, and we have that. It's a different guy every week."
After looking anemic for the first 40-plus minutes, the Irish offense — specifically Book — came alive. The comeback started when the quarterback hit Chase Claypool on a 16-yard slant pass for a touchdown, cutting the deficit to two with 2:09 left in the third.
Book finished 13-of-14 for 156 yards and two touchdowns in the second half.
"His pocket awareness was not great in the first half. Had a nice conversation with him in the second half. He settled down nicely," Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. "I just think this is maturation. Seeing things, feeling them. He had a great second half."
Notre Dame isn't immune to "winning ugly" this season. They defeated Ball State, 24-17, and Vanderbilt, 22-17, earlier in the season despite not playing their best football.
"We weren't sharp, mentally. We didn't execute efficiently, so if that's what sluggish means, then that's what we were," Kelly said. "Pittsburgh played well. They played exactly the way they needed to keep this game in this manner."
Two interceptions, three sacks and a kickoff return for a touchdown couldn't stop Notre Dame from improving to 7-0 as they head into their bye week.
"If you had told me that all of those things were going to happen, and we'd still find a way to win the football game, then I'd be pretty excited," Kelly said.
Austin Hough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-533-2151, ext. 325. Follow Austin on Twitter @AustinHoughTGN