On a weird, wet night defined by puzzling plays, one ragged rush defense and a featherweight freshman, Penn State prevailed. The No. 13 Nittany Lions put Pitt to bed, 51-6, Saturday night at Heinz Field.
Redshirt freshman KJ Hamler — a hero in Penn State’s upset scare against Appalachian State — starred yet again, finding the end zone two times and finishing with 145 all-purpose yards. Trace McSorley (14 of 30 passing, 145 yards) now has 30 consecutive games with a touchdown pass. And Nittany Lions running back Miles Sanders, in his hometown return, was effective when given the opportunity, rushing for 118 yards on 16 carries.
Penn State’s playmakers were on full display. So was the rundown defense. Despite rebounding in the second half, buoyed by DT Kevin Givens’ return, the Nittany Lions allowed 214 rushing yards in the first half.
Person of the game
Pat Narduzzi: Normally this section is reserved for “player of the game,” and Hamler or Sanders could have been the pick here. But we’ll go with a wild card.
Pitt fans have legitimate reason to be disappointed in how Saturday night turned out. Narduzzi consistently shot his team in the foot.
He picked up a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty to end the first quarter. During the TV timeout, he continually chirped at the referees, almost begging to draw another flag and get ejected.
On fourth-and-3 from Penn State’s 4-yard line, down 7-6 in the second quarter, the Panthers could have taken a chip-shot field goal and the lead. The conditions weren’t great, but at the time, Penn State was hurting and out of rhythm. Three points and an advantage on the scoreboard would have been huge.
The Panthers gashed Penn State for 214 rushing yards and went into halftime with six points. How that happens is baffling. And the Panthers came out of the second half flat. In the third quarter — when Penn State outscored Pitt 16-0 — the Panthers had zero first downs, seven penalties, 13 passing yards and negative-15 rushing yards.
As much as Penn State rebounded in the second half, Pitt faltered. And a significant blame there falls on Narduzzi.
KJ cruising: Penn State gave Pitt a taste of its own medicine.
Two years ago, then-offensive coordinator Matt Canada and the Panthers ran up and down the field on Penn State, sparked by jet sweeps and confusing dummy shifts. On Penn State’s first drive, Hamler sprinted across the face of McSorley in motion and secured the sweep handoff. The speedster sprinted up the Pitt sideline and went 32 yards to the house.
It was a play Penn State practiced on Wednesday, and it worked to perfection.
Hamler was the first Penn State receiver to have a rushing and receiving touchdown in a single game since Derrick Williams in 2008. And the redshirt freshman is showing shades of being an electric playmaker early in his career.
Blake Gillikin: How about the Big Ten’s best punter? In terrible weather — so bad the Pitt band stayed in the stands for its halftime performance — Gillikin was a game-changer.
Late in the second quarter, the Nittany Lions were backed up to their own 15-yard line after a McSorley sack. With Pitt down one and smelling blood, Gillikin boomed a 47-yard punt to switch field position. The difference between Gillikin and Pitt punter Kirk Christodoulou showed minutes later, with the latter fumbling a snap and gifting Penn State prime field position that turned into points.
On the first drive of the third quarter, pushed back again to their own 15, Gillikin set the tone for the second half. His 52-yard punt dictated field position.
Gillikin averaged 42.6 yards per on 5 attempts. He made it easy on the Penn State defense.
Non-con finale: After a close call against Appalachian State and a road matchup against rival, Penn State returns home to close out its non-conference slate. The Nittany Lions face Kent State before getting its Big Ten schedule underway the following week. The Golden Flashes, who lost their season opener to Illinois, throttled FCS program Howard 54-14 on Saturday afternoon. The Nittany Lions are 5-0 against Kent State, including a 33-13 win in 2016. Next weekend’s game will kick at noon and air on Fox Sports 1.