Even some of Penn State’s players weren’t quite sure what Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi was thinking Saturday afternoon.
With less than five minutes left in the game, Pitt found itself just 1 yard shy of the end zone while trailing by a touchdown. But, on fourth down, the Panthers decided to settle for a field goal — and missed, after the pigskin deflected off the upright from 19 yards.
It was maybe the most puzzling playcall in the 100-meeting history between Pitt and Penn State. And most of the Nittany Lions didn’t try to hide their surprise after Saturday’s 17-10 victory. Did it shock Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons?
“Oh definitely,” Parsons said, hinting he would’ve gone for it. “I think it’s always a great opportunity to take a chance, you know? You have nothing to lose. If you don’t get in on the 1, we’re backed up. So it’s just situational and different thoughts from different people.”
Narduzzi vehemently defended the playcall after the game, saying it’s easy for the “armchair quarterbacks with all those armchair desks” to criticize. But his explanation didn’t stand up to some cursory questioning.
“You need two scores to win a football game, unless you guys are playing for overtime,” Narduzzi said. “And I’m trying to win a football game.”
When one reporter asked why he couldn’t just go for a two-point conversion, if that was his mentality, Narduzzi did not respond.
The conventional call would’ve been to go for the touchdown, kick the extra point and try to force a stop and kick a field goal. Instead, Narduzzi took the blame — but said he’s not second-guessing himself.
“I just wanted to play to win the football game,” he added. “It’s a two-possession game, as far as we have to score twice to win the football game. I don’t question that decision at all.”
Some Nittany Lions did — or at least came close to.
Linebacker Jan Johnson acknowledged he thought the Panthers were going to fake it. “We were prepared for a fake,” he said. In the moment he realized it wasn’t a fake, Johnson thought maybe Pitt was going to attempt an onside kick after the field goal. Linebacker Cam Brown admitted he was “a little bit” surprised by the move.
“I guess the coach decided that that’d look better,” Brown said. “I’m not sure. I couldn’t really tell you.”
A big smile spread across wideout KJ Hamler’s face when he was asked about the play. But he opted to play it safe: “I don’t know what you want me to say. I mean, that’s their decision. They could’ve went for it — but that’s their decision.”
This could be the final Penn State-Pitt game for more than a decade. And, for the next decade, this game will not be remembered for what Penn State did — but for what Narduzzi didn’t do.
With 5:50 left in the game, the Panthers found themselves at first-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Pitt attempted three straight plays without a handoff — “Just look at the success we had running the ball,” Narduzzi added, referring to Pitt’s 24 yards on 25 carries — and then faced an important decision on fourth down.
Narduzzi opted to attempt a field goal, one Pitt missed. But Pitt’s quarterback wasn’t about to criticize his head coach.
“I’m a player, so I don’t make decisions,” QB Kenny Pickett said after the game. “I do what the coaches tell me to do. If we score there or get the three points there and go down and score, we’re ahead. Or we go there and get stuffed, people will say ‘Why didn’t you kick it?’ It is what it is. That’s why you guys report, I play, and the coaches coach.”
The miss from Pitt kicker Alex Kessman changed the face of the game. Penn State safety Garrett Taylor sprinted to the sideline, pumping his fists in celebration after the play, while Brown yelled on the sidelines that the game was on Penn State now.
“That was a huge, huge part of the game,” Taylor said. “We really showed how gritty we were on defense at the goal line and forced a field goal, and they missed it. All we had to do was close out from there.”
Penn State milked the clock for nearly three minutes on the next possession — and Pitt got the ball back, on its own 16-yard line, with 1:56 left in the game. But time ran out for the Panthers, as a 26-yard game-tying pass fell to the turf in the final seconds.
And, with that, the 2010’s chapter of the Penn State-Pitt series is closed. In excruciating fashion for Pitt fans and head-shaking fashion for PSU supporters.
“It’s hard for me to sit here and say necessarily exactly what he was thinking,” Penn State had coach James Franklin said, referring to Narduzzi. “But the touchdown would’ve given them a win, and I’m assuming that’s what they thought.”