Manhandled Pitt out of Top 25 after another upset loss

Updated: October 12, 2003, 5:07 PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- What was supposed to be Pitt's best football season since it ended a string of annual Top 10 finishes in the early 1980s is fast resembling the recent past.

Supposedly certain wins morph into unexpected failures. Breakdowns develop when least expected. Fundamentals -- tackling, blocking, protecting timeouts, clock management -- become frustratingly tough to master at critical times.

And, of course, the Panthers lose to Notre Dame.

Less than a month after they seemed ready to move into the Top Five, the Panthers (3-2) aren't even in the Top 25. They have yet to play a ranked team, have lost two of their last three games, and still have to play No. 2 Miami and No. 3 Virginia Tech.

What frustrated coach Walt Harris after Saturday night's 20-14 upset loss to unranked Notre Dame at Heinz Field wasn't just what happened, but how it happened.

"We had trouble physically getting it done," he said. "It is tough to get things done when you can't handle the game physically. You have to try and trick them or disguise the fact that you can't handle them."

Three weeks after Toledo stunned the Panthers 35-31 by throwing for 461 yards and totaling 551 yards, the Fighting Irish (2-3) -- a nine-point underdog -- took the opposite approach to beat Pitt for the 11th time in 12 games and the 25th in 31 games.

The team that threw 62 times for 297 yards in a 23-10 loss to Purdue two weeks ago almost abandoned the pass as freshman Brady Quinn completed only five passes for 33 yards.

Instead, the Irish -- eighth from the bottom in rushing among the 117 Division I-A teams -- came out with a power running game that piled up 352 yards, including Julius Jones' school record 262 yards. The Irish were averaging only 91 yards rushing.

Jones, who ran for 718 yards as a junior in 2001 before being academically ineligible last season, broke the record of 255 yards by Vagas Ferguson against Georgia Tech in 1978. He also was the first Notre Dame runner since Reggie Brooks in 1992 to gain more than 200 yards.

Jones ran for touchdowns of 25 and 49 yards as Notre Dame opened a 17-14 lead at halftime, then had 168 yards in the second half to easily outgain Pittsburgh by himself. The Panthers finished with 175 yards, only 73 in the second half.

"He looked fast, and we weren't as sharp as we wanted to be," Harris said. "It was a hard day at the office."

The Panthers made it hard for themselves with two fumbles-- one each by quarterback Rod Rutherford and punt returner William "Tutu" Ferguson -- that led to Irish scores. Rutherford, who had the top passer efficiency rating in the country, completed only 12 of 30 passes for 167 yards and was sacked eight times.

"I was getting frustrated," said Rutherford, who also was sacked eight times in a 14-6 loss at Notre Dame last season. "We knew we would be in for a tough game. We have some problems we have to try to fix at practice. They came out and were very physical up front."

Larry Fitzgerald made scoring catches of 23 and 4 yards in a span of two minutes with the help of Ferguson's 71-yard punt return, but did little else. His 79 yards receiving were barely half his nation's best average of nearly 146 yards per game.

"We were frustrated," Fitzgerald said. "We didn't give a really good effort offensively. They ran a lot of Cover 2 (schemes), and they were putting a lot of pressure on the passer. That combination makes it hard to pass."

With the Irish doubling Fitzgerald on nearly every play, Princell Brockenbrough was open repeatedly, only to have more drops (four) than receptions (three).

The Panthers' frustration was evident during a scoreless second half as they quickly burned through all three timeouts. Unfortunately, the Panthers can't call a timeout to regroup in a season that is fast slipping away from them.

"All we can do now," Rutherford said, "is get ready for Rutgers."

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