Panthers collapse on the biggest stage

PITTSBURGH — Pat Narduzzi entered the final scheduled home game between these two old eastern foes making no bones about the fact that the Penn State rivalry has extra meaning to his program.

Maybe, in fact, it means too much.

Pitt rolled out the most decorated of its incredibly illustrious alumni roster, introducing such greats as Dan Marino, Tony Dorsett, Hugh Green and honorary captain Mike Ditka at halftime. Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill were also in the house.

Each must have watched with a combination of horror and disbelief as the stage proved much too big for the Panthers, who assembled a highlight reel of bloopers en route to an embarrassing 51-6 loss to the Nittany Lions on a rainy Saturday night at Heinz Field.

The play of Pitt’s special teams alone could be entered into a football hall of shame for single-game performance.

The Panthers botched their first extra point, missed a 35-yard field goal after another high snap, fumbled a punt snap that led to a touchdown, allowed a punt return for a touchdown, committed several special-teams penalties, dropped a floating punt inside their 5 that they barely recovered and mistakenly tried to fair catch a ball that bounced.

In total, Pitt committed 14 penalties for 116 yards, including a seldom-called unsportsmanlike penalty on Narduzzi himself in the first half, moments after the Panther bench was issued a sideline warning.

There’s no reason to expect the Panther players to display discipline when their head coach does not.

Afterward, a humble Narduzzi said he’d like to “apologize to Pitt Nation.”

That nation isn’t too happy this morning.

In addition to its special teams troubles, Pitt was called for holding in the end zone (resulting in a safety), multiple face-mask penalties and a late hit on Trace McSorley that sustained a Penn State possession and broke the Panthers’ backs when the game was still somewhat in doubt.

The entire Pitt student section and the Panther faithful were long gone in the second half, creating a sea of empty yellow seats, and who could blame them?

Did they want to stay around for couple more face-mask penalties while down 30-plus points in the fourth quarter?

Did they want to see James Franklin, as he questionably does when he gets the chance, roll the score up?

It was a startling turn of events from a game that began competitively and had early signs of staying close throughout.

Pitt’s punishing ground game was actually impressive in the first half as the Panthers repeatedly gashed the Nittany Lions and, were it not for mistakes, Pitt could have been up a couple scores at halftime.

But the Panthers got worse as the game wore on. After rolling up 231 yards by halftime, Pitt managed a mere 69 yards in the second half, suggesting its hearts had been torn out.

Maybe it was by Narduzzi and his inability to control his emotions, maybe it was some suspect play calling inside the Penn State 10 before halftime with a chance to take the lead, or maybe it was because Pitt has absolutely no passing game and knew it couldn’t overcome a two-score deficit.

Regardless, the Panthers lost their spirit and have to be a better team than they showed in Penn State’s last scheduled visit here.

How good are the Nittany Lions? We don’t know yet. They still won’t be favored to beat Ohio State, even at Beaver Stadium, in their next big test following games with Kent State and a trip to Illinois.

They ran hard on offense and played well on special teams. They corrected some coverage issues and made better in-game adjustments on defense. Unlike Pitt, Penn State kept its composure.

The biggest takeaway from this game is the Nittany Lions didn’t beat themselves.

Which, given what Pitt was doing to itself, was more than enough to win decisively.

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Neil Rudel covers Penn State football from the Altoona Mirror.

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