It took only one Pitt drive to spotlight just how unprepared Penn State’s defense was for the Panthers’ attack in Saturday’s 42-39 loss.
The Nittany Lions had pooch-punted from their own 35-yard line, and Pitt took over at the one — the team’s first offensive series of the game. From there, Pitt began to set a man in motion before almost every snap and either ran a jet sweep or gashed Penn State’s young defensive line with power runner James Conner. The team went 99 yards on the drive and scored, biting off chunk plays of 24, 38, 23 and 10 yards in the process as Penn State’s defense struggled to make its checks and tackle in the first and second tier.
Head coach James Franklin said the week before he fully expected Pitt to throw in some wrinkles not seen in the latter’s season opener against Villanova. After Saturday’s game, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi agreed.
“Obviously you guys saw our offense today,” he said to reporters after the game. “Last week wasn’t really our offense. This is our offense. This is the offense you’re going to see every week. And we’ve got more.”
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What Penn State didn’t expect were the quick shifts needed to counter the motion man, and the complementary jet sweeps/power run combo used seemingly at will by Pitt to rack up a 28-7 lead early in the second quarter and 226 rushing yards by halftime.
“Didn’t think we made some adjustments early on,” said Franklin. “They did a really good job with trading and shifting and motions early in the game. I didn’t think we handled that as well as we should have.”
Furthermore, the head coach said, as Penn State’s offense used its “clap cadence” for signals and snaps, Pitt responded with its own and threw the team off. This is legal, as Franklin said he found when he asked the referee; and Narduzzi responded to that statement in his postgame presser by saying it was “just another excuse” and that Pitt actually did the same thing in its opener — film Penn State almost certainly had studied.
Franklin said last week that the Pitt coaching staff had been working on a game plan for the renewal of the rivalry after a 16-year hiatus since the beginning of the summer and all through fall camp. Narduzzi agreed that this game was “offensively (Pitt’s) opener.” Franklin said prior to his team’s opener two weeks ago Penn State was not focusing on Pitt — not even allowed to mention the game or team name within the facilities, according to assistant Terry Smith — until the week of.
If true, whether that particular preparation strategy changes will remain to be seen — next year, of course.
▪ Penn State did mount a thrilling comeback attempt, scoring 18 fourth-quarter points behind running back Saquon Barkley’s touchdowns and a slick little two-point conversion with five minutes left in the game, during which quarterback Trace McSorley faked the “Statue of Liberty” trick play and instead threw the completion to DaeSean Hamilton in the end zone.
▪ Receiver DeAndre Thompkins was also a bright spot, starting in place of an injured Saeed Blacknall on the outside. Thompkins caught three passes for 87 yards, the two most notable of which were a one-handed beauty of a 39-yard catch, and a fourth-and-9 conversion on Penn State’s final series that Thompkins pulled down for a 34-yard gain.
▪ Penn State’s special teams coverage did allow a huge 84-yard gain in the fourth quarter that set up an easy Pitt touchdown when the latter had only a four-point lead prior. However, punter Blake Gillikin executed to near-perfection when called upon, pinning Pitt back to the 1-yard line on a 35-yard pooch and the 7-yard line on a 69-yard punt that caused a few NFL scouts in the press box to gasp. Punt returner John Reid also had a 59-yard return that set up the first Nittany Lions touchdown of the game.
Thinner than usual in the second tier without injured starting middle linebacker Jason Cabinda, Penn State struggled to take down Pitt’s physical runners. Missed tackles allowed Pitt to rack up 11 rushing chunk plays (15-plus yards), seven in the first half alone as the Panthers ran for 226 yards in the first two quarters. Pitt finished with 341 rushing yards and three touchdowns, and Penn State plummeted nationally to No. 116 in rushing defense.
“We’re throwing shoulders, we’re not wrapping,” said Franklin after the game. “That’s a big, physical team.”
Penn State’s offensive line could do virtually nothing against Pitt pass rusher, Ejuan Price, who forced two fumbles after blowing up Brendan Mahon on the left side. The first was a complete blindside hit on McSorley, and both led to Pitt touchdown drives. The Panthers forced five fumbles and recovered three, had four sacks and scored 14 points off of Penn State turnovers.
The final turnover, of course, was an interception by Ryan Lewis in the end zone to seal the game after McSorley overthrew tight end Mike Gesicki.
“Blind side hits, you know, to me they go in his column but we got to do a better job consistently protecting,” said Franklin. “And the interception at the end, that was big because we had fought like crazy to get back into the game.”
While Franklin and players alike supported the call on second down-and-9, with the team down by three points and on Pitt’s 31-yard line (they echoed they wanted to be aggressive, as is offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s style), execution was poor from the overthrow to the lack of breakup by receivers downfield, to a wrong route run by young wideout Irvin Charles on the play.