Conor Lee arrived at Pitt as a walk-on kicker not knowing if he would ever play for the Panthers, let alone kick a game-winning field goal to beat Notre Dame in the longest game in either school’s history.
“For this to happen five years later is a dream come true,” Lee said after the 36-33 quadruple-overtime victory. “It’s awesome.”
The fifth-year senior from Upper St. Clair persevered, despite losing the starting job to junior-college transfer Josh Cummings and then watching the Panthers recruit other kickers each of the past two seasons.
Lee beat out one of those targets, freshman Kevin Harper, in training camp and found himself in an overtime duel with another in Notre Dame sophomore Brandon Walker Saturday in South Bend, Ind. Where Walker finally blinked, missing a 38-yarder wide left in the fourth overtime, Lee converted the first game-winner of his career on a 22-yarder.
“I was not aware he’d never kicked a game winner,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said, “but I will say this: I never even thought about Conor not making it. That’s the type of confidence everybody has in him.”
That’s not entirely true. Wannstedt has been hesitant in letting Lee kick from long distances – although he is 6 of 8 from 40-49 yards, his season long is from 44 and career long is from 48 – and that might have cost the kicker a shot at the Lou Groza Award. Lee didn’t make the cut to 20 semifinalists, despite making 88.9 percent of field goals this season.
Yet Lee earned Big East special teams player of the week honors for the second time this season after he was perfect on eight kicks in a record-setting performance. He set school single-game marks for field goals (five), points (18) and career records for field goals (46) and consecutive PATs (100). Records set by Carson Long, who played with Tony Dorsett.
“I’ve never been more confident in someone than Conor Lee,” Pitt middle linebacker Scott McKillop said. “Where he came from, going to Fork Union and then coming here and earning a scholarship, I don’t think he gets the credit he rightfully deserves. They’re the unsung heroes. Whenever they do miss kicks, they’re the ones people will go after.”
The interesting thing is, Lee’s only misses came in the games the Panthers (6-2) lost. He missed a 42-yarder against Bowling Green and a 45-yarder that bounced off the right upright against Rutgers. Neither were the determining factor in the loss, but Lee quickly forgot about them.
Lee made the decisive kick despite the sprinklers going off in the end zone below Touchdown Jesus, where Walker would whiff and Lee would send the game winner through the uprights. Lee laughed when asked if the wet grass, left long to slow LeSean McCoy, was a distraction.
“That’s nothing,” he said, “compared to Heinz Field.”
It’s not often teammates talk about their kicker as one of their best leaders but the Panthers, almost to a man, universally respect Lee. And with good reason, as he came through time and time again in the clutch to provide one of the most exciting wins in recent Pitt football history.
“It’s so good for our team to get this type of win,” Lee said. “Losing that game (to Rutgers) last week and coming up here and winning a game like this means so much for our season.”
* Did some research Sunday morning for a statistical comparison of LeSean McCoy to the nation’s top-five rushers. Not only does the Pitt sophomore tailback have favorable rushing numbers over the past five games, but he’s also the best receiver.
I also made the case that McCoy could emerge as a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate. Imagine if Pitt hadn’t lost to Rutgers. The Panthers would be 7-1 and undefeated in the Big East, ranked in the top 10-15 and led by a 1,000-yard rusher who has five consecutive 140-plus-yard games.
“Shady’s a player who makes big plays,” McKillop said. “The one thing about him is, you’re not going to stop him. You hope you can limit him.”
Wannstedt was most impressed by the way McCoy played after regulation, where he had 42 of his 169 yards and two catches for 23 yards. McCoy accounted for 65 of Pitt’s 71 yards – LaRod Stephens-Howling ran for 5 yards on three carries – in the four overtime periods.
“The best thing he did (Saturday), was that he showed toughness at the end,” Wannstedt said. “Conditioning, team player, excited about the win. I mean, all those things that are part of LeSean McCoy’s character other than his great ability to run the football.”
* Speaking of McKillop, he was his typical self in collecting 15 tackles, including two for losses, against the Fighting Irish. It’s no wonder teams don’t run the ball against the Panthers. McKillop seemed to be involved in every tackle inside the hash marks.
“We knew they were going to try to pass the ball,” McKillop said, “because last week against Rutgers we didn’t defend the pass.”
* Pitt once again had trouble stopping the deep ball, as Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen completed 23 of 44 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns. Irish receivers Michael Floyd (10 catches for 100 yards, two touchdowns) and Golden Tate (six for 111, one TD) both had big games, especially in making spectacular scoring plays.
Yet the Panthers were solid against the short passes, which took away a major dimension of the Notre Dame offense in overtime. Clausen was consistently pressured by ends Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard and safeties Elijah Fields and Andrew Taglianetti made huge open-field stops in the flat and Dom DeCicco a couple of big pass breakups deep.
“Our defense stepped up,” Wannstedt said. “To hold those guys to field goals was incredible. They have a lot of talent on that offense, at all positions. And Clausen made some throws today that guys at the next level make. The guy is going to be a great player.”
* Taglianetti has proven Wannstedt correct in becoming a special-teams demon. The freshman from Central Catholic has blocked a pair of punts this season, one against Iowa and another against Notre Dame.
His first-quarter block was the first against Irish punter Eric Maust but the seventh this season for the Panthers. Nate Nix recovered at the Irish 20, and it set up the first of Lee’s five field goals, a 35-yarder to tie it 3-3. Taglianetti almost blocked another punt on the next attempt, but Maust got it off even if he shanked it for 18 yards to the Pitt 47.
* The curious move on the drive that started at the Irish 20 was to replace Pat Bostick – who started for Bill Stull (concussion) – with Kevan Smith for the second series. Smith promptly threw a screen pass that was nearly intercepted by Notre Dame outside linebacker Kerry Neal.
Pitt then went to its Wildcat formation, with McCoy gaining 5 yards to the 15. Smith returned and was sacked for a 3-yard loss. Smith played one more series, which went three-and-out from Wannstedt said today that the confusion created by the quarterback rotation wasn’t worth the trouble.
That explains why Bostick remained in the game, even after he stumbled for a 5-yard loss at the Irish 35 on the next drive and threw an interception that was returned 43 yards by cornerback Raeshon McNeil after that.
* Disheartening moments at the end of the first half, when Notre Dame drives 91 yards on nine plays and scores on an 18-yard pass from Clausen to Floyd for a 10-3 lead with 1:27 remaining.
Given Bostick’s history with interceptions, you would expect the Panthers to run the ball and run out the clock. They could have gone into halftime with a 10-3 deficit despite an awful first half offensively.
But Bostick throws that pick, which was intended for tight end Dorin Dickerson, and the Irish take advantage of a dead-ball personal foul against cornerback Ricky Gary to score on a 4-yard pass to Floyd with four seconds remaining. Anyone who thought Pitt would win, raise your hand.
* Speaking of personal fouls, the one against Notre Dame safety Kyle McCarthy was one of the game’s most costly plays. Bostick threw a short third-and-8 pass behind Derek Kinder for a 4-yard gain. The Panthers would have been forced to punt from their 35. Instead, they get it at the 50.
On fourth-and-1, Bostick finds Oderick Turner for the first down and Turner slips cornerback Terrail Lambert for a 37-yard gain. Stephens-Howling scored on a 4-yard run on the next play. Now, it’s 17-10.
* Which brings us back to Taglianetti and Fields, a pair of reserves who played like starters. On third-and-15 at the Notre Dame 22, Clausen throws a screen pass to Allen. Taglianetti flies in and cuts Allen at the knees for a 7-yard gain. The Irish are forced to punt.
The ball rolls between the legs of T.J. Porter, who replaced Aaron Berry deep. Who comes to the rescue? None other than Fields, who didn’t play at all against Navy and sparingly against Rutgers but dives on the ball at the Pitt 23.
* Not that it saved the Panthers from a turnover.
On the next play, Bostick overthrows Baldwin – how you overthrow a 6-foot-5 receiver with a 40-inch vertical is beyond me – and McNeil picks it off at the 41 and returns it to the 37.
* That’s where the Pitt defense came up big.
McKillop, Mick Williams and Greg Williams team up to drop Allen for a 5-yard loss on first down. Clausen throws incomplete on second down, with Gary in coverage. Allen runs a draw 8 yards on third down. Notre Dame decides to gamble, going for it on fourth-and-7 at the Pitt 34.
Pitt didn’t have enough players on the field, sending Gus Mustakas on late, and had to call a timeout. When play resumes, Clausen throws to Floyd and Fields makes a huge stop for no gain to force a turnover on downs.
* At the end of the third quarter, Pitt came up with a championship drive: Fifteen plays, 70 yards, 8:28. The Panthers had two third-down conversions and a 5-yard run by Stephens-Howling on fourth-and-2. John Pelusi draws a false start on second-and-goal at the 2, and Pitt still scores.
Game tied at 17-17 with 11:03 to play.
* Notre Dame answers with an impressive drive of its own, going 75 yards in 12 plays and 5:25, with Clausen hitting Tate for a 6-yard touchdown on a corner fade after Gary slipped in the end zone for a 24-17 lead with 5:38 remaining. Clausen was 2 of 5 for 7 yards in the second half before going 4 of 6 for 55 yards on that drive.
Pitt could have folded. Instead, the Panthers march 70 yards on eight plays, with Porter slipping a defender for a 37-yard catch and McCoy bouncing outside on a draw for an 18-yard gain to the Irish 14.
Here’s where Matt Cavanaugh earns his paycheck:
On the play before McCoy’s draw, Pitt tried a deep pass to Baldwin that was broken up in the left side of the end zone. After McCoy’s 4-yard run to the 10, Pitt went to Baldwin twice on corner fades to the right side. Neither one worked. Cavanaugh calls timeout, draws up an isolation play and has Bostick throw another fade – this time in single coverage – for a 10-yard touchdown to apparently tie the game with 2;22 remaining.
* Here’s where Andrew Janocko redeems himself.
The Pitt holder, a walk-on quarterback from Clearfield, infamously flopped on a fake field goal against Rutgers a week earlier. This time, the snap from center is low. Janocko corrects to catch it, point it and spin it so that Lee can make the game-tying extra point for a 24-24 score.
As big of a play as there was in the game.
* Pitt could have lost this one in regulation.
The Irish drew two penalties, a pass interference against Aaron Berry and a holding against Jovani Chappel, for a first-and-10 at its 41. A pass interference against Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph pushed the Irish back to their own 26, but Rudolph responded with a 21-yard catch to the 47. On third-and-4, Rashaad Duncan and Greg Romeus stopped Allen after a 3-yard play-action run to set up a fourth-and-1 at the 50 with 40 seconds left.
The Irish go for it, with Clausen rolling right. Sheard and Austin Ransom stop him for no gain, forcing another turnover on downs.
* Pitt could have won this one in regulation.
Bostick overthrew another pass intended for Baldwin on first down. With 27 seconds left, Bostick’s pass sailed over Baldwin and into the arms of safety David Bruton at the Notre Dame 27.
We go into overtime, where the legs of LeSean McCoy and Conor Lee lead the Panthers to victory and seal their legacy as legends in Pitt lore.