Penn State Football

What Penn State’s complicated win over Pitt says about the Nittany Lions’ future

Penn State players celebrate defeating Pitt 51-6 Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 at Heinz Field.
Penn State players celebrate defeating Pitt 51-6 Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 at Heinz Field.

One row of rain-drenched undergrads remained in Pitt’s student section as Penn State fans pushed up against the visitor’s sideline and made Heinz Field home. The torn-up field had enough, and so did the Panthers.

It was a familiar feeling for the Nittany Lions. Penn State linebacker Cam Brown flashed back to Nov. 19, 2016, when the Nittany Lions beat Rutgers to a pulp and HighPoint Solutions Stadium was hollow, save for the remaining white-clad faithful.

That was a 39-point beatdown of the lowly Scarlet Knights. What happened Saturday night was a 51-6 thrashing of Pitt. But how the Nittany Lions arrived at both results differed greatly. A blowout was a formality two years ago in Piscataway. On the North Shore, Penn State still looked like a team with room to grow. And plenty of it with Big Ten play on the horizon.

“I’m pleased with where we’re at, but we’ve got to take another step,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said. “We have to play better in the first half. Because depending on how things go, you might not be able to come back. You might not be able to recover.”

The Nittany Lions won by 45 points. And yet, at halftime, it was shocking that they led.

Penn State’s defense — a unit already under fire following a calamitous finish against Appalachian State last weekend — looked soft. Pitt ran for 214 yards in the first two quarters. Bowling ball back Qadree Ollison burst through Penn State’s young defensive line without being touched, running for 125 yards on 17 carries in the first half. Penn State was left without an answer.

It wasn’t just the defense, either. In his opening statement late Saturday night, Franklin addressed a few mishaps.

Ricky Slade’s momentum-shifting fumble? “We don’t do that.”

Penalties hampering Miles Sanders from hitting home-run plays? “Really costly.”

Explosive plays? There “can still be more.”

The first half left a lot to be desired and a lot to correct.

“We shouldn’t need to make adjustments. We should be doing that from the beginning,” Franklin said. “We played really good clutch defense in the first half. As the season goes on, we won’t be able to get away with that with some of our opponents.”

Penn State football coach James Franklin answers a question about Lamont Wade growing as a player and talks about how each player need to embrace their own journey.

To hear Franklin assess his squad critically within minutes of polishing off Pitt by six touchdowns was somewhat surprising, but justified. Penn State can’t pull a first half like that against Ohio State, Michigan or Wisconsin and expect to survive. That’s how College Football Playoff hopes die fast.

Still, there was cause for celebration. Rival or not, Penn State made the necessary adjustments Franklin talked about, and it showed. In the third quarter, Pat Narduzzi’s Panthers had zero first downs, 13 passing yards and negative-15 rushing yards. In the second half as a whole, Penn State outgained Pitt 202-73.

Brown noticed the Pitt students slowly drag their feet up the cement walkways and leave Heinz Field early in the fourth quarter. “You know when the fans’ will is broken, the team starts to break after that,” he said.

It got to a point where Trace McSorley took his helmet off, grabbed a rain jacket and watched redshirt freshman quarterback Sean Clifford take over. Seconds later, he connected with Brandon Polk for a 34-yard touchdown. Those moments — sitting back before the clock hits zero, basking in a win — are few and far between.

“You’d love to get accustomed to it,” McSorley said with a smile.

And maybe the Nittany Lions are inching closer toward that. Maybe the second half against Pitt was what Penn State needed to recapture its old form.

After losing Saquon Barkley, Joe Moorhead and a bevy of NFL talent, growing pains were an inevitability. Their faults and weaknesses were obvious — and concerning — to the casual fan against 24-point underdog App State last weekend. The same could be said about the first half against Pitt.

Franklin said his Nittany Lions still played “like an inexperienced football team” at times at Heinz Field. But after a week of practice in which McSorley said the Nittany Lions possessed “a sense of urgency,” that second half felt like the late-season 2016 Nittany Lions. The kind of group that imposes its will.

If Penn State is going to be more than an eight- or nine-win team — if it is going to seriously contend for a spot in college football’s Final Four — Saturday’s second half needs to become the norm.

“You’ve got to get ready for the next,” defensive end Shareef Miller said. “After Kent State, we’ve got Big Ten play. It’s just going to get better and better.”