Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley looked stunned after a game-ending pick while wideout DaeSean Hamilton — moments after dropping a sure-fire touchdown — sat next to him on the bench with a towel over his head in tears.
The Nittany Lions could do nothing in last season’s meeting but watch as Pitt signal-caller Nathan Peterman took three kneel downs and excitement built for the Panthers.
The scoreboard read 42-39 in Pitt’s favor. The Nittany Lions walked off Heinz Field, their hearts and bodies aching.
“There was a lot of disappointment,” Penn State cornerback Grant Haley recalled earlier this week. “At the same time, when we went back and watched the film, it was a wakeup call. This can’t happen. This was uncharacteristic of us.”
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The Ohio State upset will go down as the game that re-established Penn State as a contender, and the win over Minnesota in overtime started last season’s magical run to the Rose Bowl.
But it was in Pittsburgh, in that second half, in that emotional devastation, that the Nittany Lions started to find their identity.
Penn State is a different team now than it was this time a year ago. That’s clear. The Nittany Lions are 21-point favorites at home on Saturday, and judging by predictions across the state and country, many believe the Nittany Lions will cover safely.
That confidence is rooted primarily in Penn State’s offense.
After putting up 52 points on Akron in Week 1 and averaging 46.4 points per game in their last eight games dating back to last season, Joe Moorhead’s guys are rolling. McSorley has 1,294 passing yards in his past four games, and Saquon Barkley hung 226 all-purpose yards on the Zips in three quarters.
Penn State’s offense under Moorhead wasn’t always this prolific. The Nittany Lions’ box score at Michigan is evidence of that.
But in the Nittany Lions’ first loss of 2016, the signs of a high-flying offense were there.
At least, in the second half. After trailing 28-14 at the break, McSorley mounted a comeback — throwing for 202 yards and guiding the Nittany Lions to 25 points in the second half alone.
Of course, it wasn’t enough. McSorley’s final pass fell into the hands of Pitt cornerback Ryan Lewis, leaving him speechless as he walked back to the Penn State sideline.
But in retrospect, McSorley knew something special was brewing in that second half.
“Obviously it wasn’t one of the big moments because, yeah, we weren’t able to finish it out and come away with the win,” the quarterback said, “but I think if you look back on it and think about how we were able to have some success in that second half and claw and fight back and give ourselves a chance, I think that’s something you can look back and say, yeah, that gave us a little bit of confidence moving on through the year.”
Same goes for the Penn State defense. After being popped in the mouth for 28 first-half points, the Nittany Lions buckled down and complemented the offense’s comeback efforts.
And they did so without a key member: injured linebacker Jason Cabinda.
Cabinda could do nothing but stand on the sidelines and watch the roller-coaster rivalry game — and walking off that field at Heinz was agonizing.
“Anytime you take a loss, especially in the fashion we lost with such a close game, it’s pretty tough,” Cabinda said. “Maybe if there was just one play you could’ve made in the game or one thing you could’ve done to impact it, knowing you were on the sidelines, that was the toughest part about it.”
That being said, Cabinda is itching to play the Panthers on Saturday. So are the rest of his teammates.
As senior safety Troy Apke said, that loss to Pitt — and the sight of the Panthers celebrating in their midst — “left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth.”
But the Nittany Lions are in a prime position to eradicate that.
Penn State might not have had an identity entering Heinz Field. But when McSorley, Cabinda, Haley and their teammates shuffled their way to the locker room, they could see a glimpse of what was to come.
Twelve months later, the Nittany Lions are ready to show Pitt who they really are.