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Irish tread well-worn territory in victory

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The pop group OK Go performed with the Notre Dame marching band at halftime of Saturday's game against Pittsburgh. They became famous for a video of their song "Here It Goes Again" in which they performed a choreographed dance on treadmills.

OK Go provides the perfect imagery for the Fighting Irish, who are on a seemingly continual loop. Every game, even victories like the 23-17 one over Pitt, are full of starts and stops, streaks and reversals.

The one constant is inconsistency. Against the Panthers, Notre Dame led 20-3 in the third quarter after one of its best offensive stretches of the season early on. Yet the game turned into a typical heart-stopper, with the defense having to twice stonewall Pitt in the final minutes to avoid another stupefying loss. Here it goes again, indeed.

"We are really good at stubbing our toe," head coach Brian Kelly said. "But that's us. So you're going to have to get used to it. I'm trying to get used to it or it's going to make me look really old, really quick."

Legions of little mistakes conspired to keep the Irish from running away with this one in the second half. Quarterback Dayne Crist looked as sharp as he had all year in completing 12 straight passes in the first half, leading a super-speed, no-huddle attack on a pair of touchdown marches.

But Crist, who has run hot and cold all year, was just 12-of-27 outside of that dandy dozen. The offense managed only 36 yards of offense in the third quarter and failed to score a touchdown in the second half. Crist missed a wide-open (though literally hamstrung by injury) Kyle Rudolph after a Pitt linebacker Greg Williams misplayed and then cramped up in coverage. Tight end Mike Ragone dropped a pass with nothing but green around him when a first down would have all but ended the game. Another potential clincher vanished when a long Michael Floyd touchdown was called back for an illegal pick on Theo Riddick.

All the errors are fixable, but the biggest issue -- still -- is a lack of killer instinct to put wobbly opponents away.

"That's something everyone is very cognizant of, and something we all want to achieve on offense," Crist said of landing a knockout blow. "It's just experience. And experience together."

The offense can look devastatingly effective at times, as it did in a 21-point first quarter last week at Boston College, and completely pedestrian in others. Kelly admits he is "micromanaging" Crist and the play calling right now while players figure everything out. That's one reason why the Irish used a lot of short passes and un-Kelly-esque clock-burning drives against Pitt.

"It's not a beauty contest yet for us," Kelly said. "It's certainly not that. But my job is to get Notre Dame to win football games, and we're starting to do that."

The Irish may seem like they're running in place with a 3-3 record, but simple survival in the opening six-game stretch was key. Things had a way of evening out; Michigan, Michigan State and Stanford were all a little feistier than most expected in the preseason, while Purdue, Boston College and Pittsburgh have all struggled more than predicted.

Notre Dame beat the teams it should have beaten, and now comes a welcome stretch of games with Western Michigan, Navy and Tulsa lined up. The Irish have a chance to get some momentum going before the Nov. 13 showdown at home against Utah.

"We feel like we're progressing in a positive way," Floyd said. "We're feeling good having these [last] two games under our belt as victories. We feel we can do anything right now."

Offensive hiccups aside, several positives came out of the Pitt win.

Special teams shined, as David Ruffer continued his record streak of perfection. He's now 16-for-16 on career field goals after drilling three more Saturday, including a no-doubt 50-yarder after a bobbled hold. The punt team pinned Pitt deep in its own territory repeatedly, most importantly on the final two possessions with the game on the line. The defense held the Panthers without a first down on those two tense drives. And the Irish did not commit a turnover.

"We did some good things today and some things we'd like to correct," Crist said. "But the best thing was, we got a win while doing it."

Kelly says Notre Dame can continue to win while learning on the fly, and the rest of the schedule surely helps in that regard. He said the team is developing a belief that it will win close games. He sees a time coming when everything starts to click and the treadmill dance stops.

"All things will be OK," he said, smiling.

And maybe that's when the Irish will really be on the go.