Panthers are ill-prepared for Lions

Sentinel photo by PATRICK WAKSMUNSKI
Penn State’s defense offered little to Pitt in Saturday’s rivalry game, holding the Panthers to one first-quarter touchdown despite Pitt rushing for more yards in the game.

PITTSBURGH — A lot of people waited a long time for the return of the Penn State-Pitt rivalry. But after the humiliating debacle that unfolded Saturday night, the ending of this series renewal might not come quickly enough for many fans.

The Nittany Lions played OK. Just OK. They made a lot of mistakes, then, as usual, made some adjustments and looked a lot better in the second half.

That relatively pedestrian effort, however, shockingly was plenty good enough for No. 13 Penn State to embarrass Pitt, 51-6, before a sellout crowd at Heinz Field.

“It was a good team win, a really good team win,” Penn State running back Miles Sanders said.

Penn State (2-0) didn’t have to play all that well because the Panthers, quite frankly, could not have played much worse.

Pitt’s special teams were abysmal, its passing game non-existent and composure completely lacking. The Panthers (1-1) finished with 14 penalties for 116 yards and had a miserable second half as Penn State turned a 14-6 lead into the 45-point decimation.

The game was close early, and trailing 7-6, Pitt had a chance to take the lead midway through the second quarter. The Panthers faced fourth-and-3 from the 4-yard line and were set to go for it, but coach Pat Narduzzi came racing down the sideline and called timeout.

Usually when that happens, the coach reconsiders and decides to take the points for the lead. Narduzzi, however, not only decided to go for it, the play call was for a simple run to the right that Penn State easily sniffed out and shut down.

“Probably the biggest turning point was that play right there,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t think we made a yard.”

“That was big for us,” Penn State defensive end Shareef Miller said. “I actually knew the play was coming. … I knew they were about to run that play because they had a tackle over it.”

The significance of that fourth-down decision, play call and defensive stop cannot be overstated.

In one of the wildest stats you’ll see in major college football, the Panthers had 181 yards of offense late in the second quarter, and every single one of them had come on the ground. Their running game obviously was doing well, but their passing game did absolutely nothing.

So, when Penn State stopped Pitt on the ground on the fourth-down play, it changed things for both teams.

The Panthers still couldn’t throw the ball with any level of effectiveness, and once the Lions got confidence in stopping the run, Pitt had no chance whatsoever.

On Pitt’s next possession, punter Kirk Christodoulou dropped the snap, and Jarvis Miller recovered for Penn State at the Panther 35. Sanders ran for 21 yards on the next play, then Trace McSorley hit K.J. Hamler on a 14-yard TD pass for a 14-6 lead with 26 seconds left in the half.

Penn State didn’t score on the first possession of the second half, but more importantly, Pitt started at its own 15 and went backward 3 yards before punting.

The Panthers had 214 yards rushing in the first half, but the fourth-stop down and ensuing drives proved that Penn State had figured out how to stop them on the ground. They finished the game with 245 yards rushing, just 31 in the second half.

“They were getting some of our checks,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “We just made some subtle adjustments. We played more base defense in the second half. We gave up some big plays. But I’ll take giving up six points. We played really good, clutch defense in the second half.”

Pitt began to fall apart on Penn State’s next offensive series, committing a bad roughing-the-passer penalty on a third-and-10 that kept a drive alive. The Lions kept moving the ball, and McSorley scored on a 4-yard keeper moments later for a 21-6 lead with 8:36 left in the third.

It still wasn’t a big lead, but it had already become clear that Pitt was one dimensional and was not going to challenge Penn State through the air. First-year starting quarterback Kenny Pickett didn’t have much time to throw, he was playing in wet conditions and seemed to panic by getting out of the pocket and running as soon as he could.

That strategy helped Pickett early on as he had some big gains on the ground. But once the Panthers fell behind and Penn State focused on stopping the run, Pickett had no answers with his arm.

He finished just 9-of-18 for 55 yards and one interception.

“Kenny didn’t look like himself back there in the pocket,” Narduzzi said.

Pitt was flagged for holding while Pickett was trying to throw from the end zone on its next series, resulting in a safety and 23-6 Nittany Lion lead.

The Lions were just getting started on their rout.

DeAndre Thompkins returned a short punt 39 yards for a touchdown to make it 30-6 with 28 seconds left in the third quarter. Penn State then scored three touchdowns in the final period to pour it on.

McSorley hit Mac Hippenhammer for an 11-yard TD pass, and Mark Allen scored on a 4-yard run to make it 44-6.

That was it for McSorley, who gave way to Sean Clifford, who made his college debut. Franklin let the young quarterback throw on his first play despite having a big lead, and Clifford tossed a 34-yard TD pass to Brandon Pol to set the final score.

The 51-6 outcome was not the largest blowout in series history. That was a 59-0 win in 1903, and the Lions had a 65-9 win in 1968.

“Going on the road against a good football team is going to help us,” Franklin said. “We were able to make some clutch plays. I’m pleased with our team. I’m pleased with what we did this weekend.”