Special teams, defense lead Lions to win
UNIVERSITY PARK — Trace McSorley is one of the most candid Penn State players, someone who’s not afraid to break from the “every game is our Super Bowl” company line and actually try to explain what really happened.
It was pretty clear to see what happened to McSorley and the usually potent Penn State offense early on Saturday against longtime rival Pitt, and McSorley owned up to it.
“Our emotions were high, but it felt like we almost kind of let it all out too early and then kind of fizzled out a little bit the first half,” the quarterback said.
Penn State’s defense and special teams picked up the slack, though, and even though the offense didn’t have a big day, the Lions still won easily, 33-14, before 109,898 fans at Beaver Stadium.
McSorley admitted he had some jitters at the outset, and explained why. He threw a late interception that ended the Nittany Lions’ hopes in last year’s loss to Pitt, so naturally, he wanted to atone for it this time around.
“With how last year ended, I think that was kind of playing a lot into it,” he said. “When I think about last year’s game, that (interception) stands out a lot. But I think it was just kind of overall how last year ended, with the team losing, us clawing back and giving ourselves a shot to win and not finish it out.”
Many expected No. 4 Penn State, which was favored by 21 points, to crush Pitt, primarily because of the Lions’ great offense. But with McSorley having happy feet and missing a lot of throws early, the offense sputtered much more than usual.
Penn State (2-0) had scored at least 35 points in eight straight games, the longest streak of any Power 5 team, before Saturday. But even though the offense wasn’t great, putting 33 points on the board still said quite a bit.
“We didn’t play our best football as an offense today, and we were still able to go out there and score 30 points,” receiver DaeSean Hamilton said.
As for the 19-point margin, Hamilton noted, “It speaks a lot for our defense, as well.”
Pitt had 24 first downs to Penn State’s 14.
The Panthers (1-1) dominated time of possession, holding the ball for 38:20 to just 21:40 for the Lions.
Yet Pitt scored only 14 points. It had one drive that consumed eight minutes and lasted 15 plays, but that one gained a total of only 31 yards and produced no points.
So even on a day when the Penn State offense took time to get going, the Panthers still fell behind 14-0 early and never really seemed like a serious threat to the Lions.
“We were extremely prepared,” safety Marcus Allen said of the Lions’ defense.
Grant Haley picked off Pitt quarterback Max Browne on the game’s fourth play and returned it 42 yards to the Panthers’ 8. Penn State scored on the next play as McSorley hit tight end Mike Gesicki in the end zone.
The Lions did have a good drive two series later, going 62 yards for a score. McSorley had a 36-yard run on the drive and found Gesicki for a 10-yard score to make it 14-0 less than seven minutes in.
McSorley was missing a lot of throws high — clearly amped up too much — and Penn State didn’t score for the rest of the first half. It didn’t matter, though, because the Lions’ defense stifled Pitt when it had to.
“They were on the field a lot but really were able to hold them to field goals for most of the game,” Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said.
The Lions blew up Pitt’s eight-minute drive early in the second quarter thanks to a 7-yard sack by Shareef Miller. The Panthers drove again late in the half and had first-and-goal at the 10 but stalled and settled for a field goal that made it 14-3 at the half.
Penn State’s defenders, who held a players-only film session Friday organized by linebacker Jason Cabinda, made sure they wouldn’t be surprised like they were in last year’s 42-39 loss to Pitt.
“That’s our job. We signed up for this,” Allen said when asked about helping pick up the offense. “If they’re not getting it done as well, we’ve got to pick them back up. That’s our job. And same thing with us. They’ve got to have our back. If we slip up, they’ve got to have our back.”
To that end, Franklin said, “I thought we played a very complete game.”
It wasn’t all that complete until the offense started to figure things out in the second half.
On their second possession of the half, the Lions got Saquon Barkley matched up with a linebacker over the middle. That linebacker, Saleem Brightwell, had no chance against one of the the best running backs in the country.
McSorley lofted a pass down the middle where Barkley caught it and raced to the end zone for a 46-yard TD that pretty much ended Pitt’s hopes for a comeback.
“That play was designed perfect,” Barkley said. “Trace gave me a great ball, the O-line blocked perfectly for him. You’ve got to win your one on one. That’s the game of football. It’s an 11-man sport, but you get a one on one, you’ve got to win it, and I was able to do that.
“I thought it was going to be a touchdown once I saw the one-on-one route.”
Pitt answered by moving downfield for first-and-goal at the 5, but once again the Penn State defense held. The Panthers settled for another short field goal, making it 21-6 with 6:03 left in the third.
Barkley got going a few minutes later, running for 22 yards to jumpstart a drive. He finished it by muscling his way through the middle of the defense for an 8-yard TD and 28-6 lead with 14:54 to go.
Pitt again answered, driving for its lone touchdown of the day and getting a two-point conversion to pull within 28-14. Browne had his helmet come off on second-and-goal, so backup quarterback Ben DiNucci came in and scored on a 3-yard keeper.
The Panthers got no closer, however, as Allen recorded a safety with 5:53 left and Tyler Davis kicked a field goal with 3:34 to go.
Despite Penn State’s issues on the day, and Pitt seemingly having success in several areas, the final score wasn’t close.
“They did a good job, kind of keeping us on our toes with different pressure looks and kind of forcing us — them bringing pressure — and us taking the shorter routes and kind of keep everything in front of them,” McSorley said of Pitt’s defense.
McSorley finished 15-of-28 for 164 yards, three TDs and one interception. Barkley had 88 yards on 14 carries and the big 46-yard TD catch.
For Pitt, Qadree Ollison carried 15 times for 96 yards, but Browne didn’t have a good day to balance out the offense, completing 19-of-32 for 138 yards and two interceptions.
Penn State got its revenge after last year’s loss to rival Pitt, although to Barkley, Saturday’s game wasn’t about that at all.
“It felt like a normal win to me,” Barkley said. “No game is bigger than the other. I know it sounds cliche, and I know you guys are probably sick and tired of hearing it, but we really believe in it. That’s our attitude.
“We treat every game like it’s the Super Bowl. There was no extra, oh yeah, we won, we beat Pitt. It didn’t really matter. They were just the team on our schedule at that time.”