Six years later, triple-OT loss at No. 3 Notre Dame still haunts ex-Pitt players
Six years later, Kevin Harper is living the good life in Cleveland, married, happy and working as an investment banker. He and his wife Kristin are expecting the birth of a son on Thanksgiving.
Meanwhile, Mike Shanahan is following his passion as the wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator at Elon (N.C.) University, a team currently ranked sixth in the FCS Coaches Poll.
Both Pitt graduates and former football players couldn’t be more pleased with how life is progressing.
Still, they can’t forget Nov. 3, 2012, a bitterly cold day in South Bend, Ind., where Pitt — on the way to a forgettable 6-7 season — was on the brink of making the kind of history no one imagined.
The game between Pitt and Notre Dame that day was loaded with future NFL players, including Aaron Donald, K’Waun Williams, Lafayette Pitts, Stephon Tuitt, Theo Riddick and Tyler Eifert.
The Panthers, 16½-point underdogs, led undefeated and third-ranked Notre Dame, 20-6, after three quarters, but let the Fighting Irish back in the game, finally losing, 29-26, in triple overtime. Two months later, Notre Dame was still undefeated and playing for the national championship.
Pitt will return to Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday for the first time since that game. Similar to 2012, the Fighting Irish are 6-0, ranked fifth in the nation and favored by 21 points; Pitt is still trying to find itself at 3-3.
Another three-point loss would be the next-best thing to a victory for this season’s Pitt team, but it might be difficult for Harper to believe that.
It was Harper who missed a 33-yard field goal try that would have won the game in the second overtime after Pitt’s Jarred Holley recovered Notre Dame running back Cierre Wood’s fumble in the end zone.
Harper made 31 kicks before that miss and seven after it, including what he calls the toughest of his career minutes later. The one that sailed wide right is the one that sticks.
“Honestly, it’s probably one we will never get over,” he said. “You can shake it off, but deep down that was a tough one.”
“I tried to slow down as much as I could,” Harper said, “couldn’t really get as much on it as I wanted to, just sailed a little right, definitely one I thought about a lot.”
Harper kicked four field goals in that game (two in overtime), representing nearly half of Pitt’s point total. The offense was led by running back Ray Graham, who finished with 172 yards, but it stalled repeatedly after the third quarter.
“We’re in that position because of (Harper),” said Shanahan,a Norwin graduate. “The funny part is I know, personally, me, I dropped a few passes that game and that still kind of haunts me to this day. We all know that game could have been won or lost before that.”
Mere moments after Harper’s miss, he was called out to try another in the third overtime. This one was good from 44 yards.
“The pressure on that one was, that was probably the hardest kick of my career,” he said, “and to be able to knock one through the pipes …”
He pauses, recalling the moment.
“That’s the one no one really remembers, but I know deep down I was able to suck it up and man up and come back strong. It’s tough when it comes down to one kick that everybody remembers. Hey, that’s the job of a kicker and that’s the life you sign up for.”
The game had many momentum shifts, dramatic moments and, finally, the clincher when Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson scored on a 1-yard plunge.
Actually, Harper’s miss shouldn’t have counted, at least, according to a strict interpretation of the rules. Notre Dame had two players on the field wearing jersey No. 2 – Bennett Jackson and Chris Brown – but no one noticed at the time.
“A coaching mistake,” coach Brian Kelly told the Chicago Tribune the next day.
Speaking to reporters after the game in the bowels of Notre Dame Stadium, Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri said, “We missed a field goal. That’s why we lost.”
A Pitt official immediately reminded Sunseri that he had just put the entire burden of defeat on the shoulders of a teammate and a friend.
Reporters were summoned back and Sunseri amended his remarks by saying, in part, “The team lost today and we have to keep on focusing on the team.”
Harper took it all in stride.
“It had to be tough to be a quarterback with a lot of eyes on you and being that close to winning, as well,” Harper said. “It was a tough time for all of us.”
Harper said he got nothing but support in the locker room.
“It’s more than football,” he said. “It’s a testament to how close we really were and we still are.”
Harper had NFL tryouts with the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns, but he said he hasn’t kicked a football since the day before the 2013 NFL Draft.
“I was, ‘OK, I have to go get a job now.’ ”
He said genetics might force his son to eventually become a kicker or a golfer. “My wife and I aren’t the biggest people,” he said.
To that end, among the gifts at Kristin’s recent baby shower was a football. Harper can see himself some day teaching his son to kick.
If he gets good at it, Harper said, “He can go kick at any college, except for Notre Dame.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.