Penn State Football

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: Reviewing Penn State’s close 17-10 win over Pitt

Maybe it was the realization Saturday could’ve been the final game to a historic rivalry — or maybe it was just the glow from victory — but Penn State’s players didn’t try to pretend this game felt the same.

The Nittany Lions’ 17-10 victory over Pitt might’ve been the final in-state rivalry game between the two storied programs for at least another decade. And that wasn’t completely lost on PSU, even if it performs interviews with backdrops emblazoned with “UNRIVALED.”

“Obviously, this is a rivalry,” cornerback Trent Gordon said after the game. “We’ve been talking about it all week and knew it was going to be a tough game.”

Said linebacker Micah Parsons: “It feels amazing. One of my main things I was thinking about is, how will I be remembered — or how will we be remembered? Obviously this being the last game, it’s gone so deep into the rivalry. ... That’s just something I just really thought about and really wanted to play my best so I’m only remembered for good things.”

Saturday was the 100th meeting between Penn State and Pitt, a series that started in 1893 and started to brew bad blood by 1896, when Penn State end/trainer George Hoskins took his services to Pitt. The rivalry is older than the Wright Brothers’ first flight and took shape when most U.S. homes were still lit by candles and gas lights.

The rivalry isn’t what it used to be, not when national championships were on the line when these two programs faced off in the 1970s and 1980s. But, four years ago, players wouldn’t even refer to this game as a “rivalry.” Assistant coach Terry Smith, a Penn State alum, even insisted back in 2016 it was no rivalry.

But, on Saturday, Penn State players didn’t mind using that word. So will the Nittany Lions miss this game now?

“Yeah, a little bit,” safety Garrett Taylor acknowledged. “It’s always a great atmosphere to play in like you saw today. I think that’s fun. It’s fun going against those guys; they always bring extra chippiness and stuff.

“So we made it the game that it was, and it’s fun going out there being physical, flying around and making plays. So I think the game is special for everyone, for sure.”

Good

Goal-line stand and finishing out strong: At the end of the season, when Penn State makes a highlight reel out of its defensive plays, Saturday’s goal-line stand is sure to make the cut. Nowhere was the Nittany Lions’ dominance more evident.

In case you missed it — or if you’re just a Penn State fan who just needs a reason to smile — let’s go through it once more. With about 6 minutes left in the game, and with Pitt trailing 17-10, the Panthers found themselves just 1 yard shy of the end zone on first-and-goal. What followed is sure to haunt Pat Narduzzi for the rest of his coaching career: Play-action fake where QB Kenny Pickett was pressured and threw it away, QB keeper for no gain, near-sack by LB Cam Brown and another incompletion.

And then, of course, a strange 19-yard field goal attempt that was missed. One yard. Four tries. Zero points.

Last season, Penn State’s defense took some heat for not finishing games out strong. That wasn’t an issue Saturday, as Brent Pry’s squad shut Pitt out in the second half.

“We showed them in the second half the real defense we can play,” LB Cam Brown said.

RBs Journey Brown/Noah Cain stepping out: We’ll save some of our “by-committee” questions for later. For now, there’s a lot of “good” to discuss with these two young running backs.

Redshirt sophomore Journey Brown might be the biggest offensive surprise of the season. The speedy Pennsylvania native — who once rushed for 722 yards in a single high school game — boasted another big play Saturday when he ran for an 85-yard gain in the first quarter.

His long scamper may not have gone for a touchdown, but it set up the Nittany Lions’ first score and gave the team some momentum. Brown showed he deserved the start Saturday, and it sure looks as if he’s earned that spot moving forward.

True freshman Noah Cain didn’t finish with an impressive stat line like Brown’s 10 carries for 109 yards. But his role was no less important. In fact, one could argue it was even more integral.

With the score tied at 10-10, early in the third quarter, Cain finally entered the game. What followed was a 13-play, 88-yard TD drive that was sparked almost entirely by Cain.

During that drive, Cain had six carries for 40 yards and a 13-yard catch. Oh, and he had the touchdown. He definitely earned some more playing time against Maryland with that performance.

K Jordan Stout making history: Virginia Tech — the team that barely survived Furman on Saturday — apparently didn’t have enough room to put a player like Jordan Stout on scholarship ... so the walk-on transferred to Penn State, went on scholarship and is now already breaking records.

Stout launched a 57-yard field goal through the uprights Saturday, making that the longest field goal in Penn State history. Former All-American Chris Bahr nailed three 55-yarders in 1975, but no Nittany Lion had ever gone farther.

Stout is almost automatic when it comes to touchbacks, and he’s 2-for-2 on field goals this season — from 53 and 57 yards. He is as close to perfect as a specialist can get.

Virginia Tech, what were you thinking?

Run defense: Why didn’t Pat Narduzzi decide to attempt a handoff, or at least multiple runs, when he needed just 1 yard for the TD late in the game?

“Just look at the success we had running the ball,” an agitated Narduzzi told reporters after the game.

If there’s one place Penn State’s defense shined, that was it. Pitt finished with 25 carries for 24 yards, and no run went for more than 9 yards. No Panther even reached double digits in rush yardage. It was total dominance.

“I think we’re one of the best defenses in the country,” LB Micah Parsons said, “and we just have to continue to play like it.”

Bad

Inconsistent offense: The Nittany Lions entered Saturday’s game as a 17-point favorite. They were not expected to score just 17 points.

The boom-or-bust offense had several big plays: Journey Brown’s 85-yard run, KJ Hamler’s 53-yard catch and Ricky Slade’s 40-yard catch-and-run. Those were all positive, impressive plays. But those three big plays also accounted for 46 percent of the total offense.

In other words, this offense flashed. But it was far, far from consistent.

Sean Clifford missed some big throws, the offensive line struggled (again), and the play-calling didn’t exactly earn an A-plus. Tight end Pat Freiermuth also caught one pass on the opening drive and didn’t catch another the rest of the game.

Exactly half of Penn State’s drives didn’t go more than 25 yards. And Blake Gillikin punted seven times. There is definitely some “good” to parse out here, but more was expected against an opponent like Pitt.

There’s a lot to fix before traveling to Maryland.

First-half pass rush: In the first half, Pitt QB Kenny Pickett attempted 23 passes and wasn’t sacked once. He also completed 78 percent of those throws.

Even Penn State’s defensive players acknowledged that was not acceptable. “We didn’t think we were getting a good enough pass rush in the first half,” linebacker Jan Johnson said.

With the talent on Penn State’s defensive line, one that’s supposed to be among the nation’s best, that kind of lull was not anticipated. But, once Penn State adjusted in the second half, it was much better.

In the second half, Penn State caused three sacks, pressured Pickett a lot more often and lowered his dink-and-doink completion rate to 61 percent. It was a good second half — but clearly a very bad first half.

And, if that kind of first half happens against better competition, it’ll be a lot harder to pull off the win.

Ricky Slade’s slow start to season/RBBC questions: With limited carries at this point, maybe it’s just the small sample size that’s to blame for Slade’s slow start in 2019. But all is still clearly not going according to plan.

Slade opened the season as the starter of the rotation but, by Week 3, Journey Brown has already passed him. On the ground so far this season, Slade has 12 carries for 21 rushing yards. That’s sixth on the team in rushing right now — behind Brown, freshmen Devyn Ford and Noah Cain, Sean Clifford and walk-on Nick Eury.

Slade did have 42 receiving yards Saturday, so it’s not as if he hasn’t contributed. But he was projected to be Miles Sanders’ heir apparent and, after a fumble lat week, it’s a question whether he’s even one of Penn State’s top two backs.

Which brings us to another “bad” point. Cain looked fantastic Saturday, and it was odd that he saw only one possession when he directly accounted for Penn State’s second and final TD of the day. That coaching move gets a big ole “bad” stamp from the CDT.

But James Franklin at least owned up to the oversight.

“On that last drive we probably should have subbed (Cain) in because that would have been a good situation for his style of running,” Franklin said.

Ugly

Pat Narduzzi’s bonehead call on fourth-and-goal: What in the heck was Narduzzi thinking?

We described the play above already, when talking about the defense’s goal-line stand, so we won’t go through the play-by-play again. But we just couldn’t let this play-call go.

That boneheaded move was maybe the oddest play-call in the 100-meeting history between Penn State and Pitt. There’s no other way to describe the decision to attempt a 19-yard field goal, while trailing by a touchdown late in the game, besides words like “cowardly,” “nonsensical,” and “idiotic.” Well, and “ugly.”

The decision was great for Penn State. But it cheated fans out an even more exciting finish, and it’s the call everyone will remember when these two teams next face each other — whether that’s 5, 10 or 50 years from now.

That was one of the ugliest play-calls we’ve ever seen.

Pregame traffic: Between roadwork and Penn State’s new parking system, there was a whole lot of “ugly” to track Saturday.

A quick glance at the team arrival at 9:30 a.m. showed everything. The crowd was thin — the worst it’s been all season — for a rivalry game that generated a lot of excitement throughout the week. Parking lots didn’t even appear halfway full at that early point, despite the fact parking permits were sold out by Wednesday night.

So what happened? Bumper-to-bumper traffic. Everywhere. If you had to take North Atherton Street and turn on to Park Avenue — a route that would take 15 minutes on a weekday — reports indicated you’d be waiting in traffic for 90 to 120 minutes.

It was fine elsewhere; the South Zone on Porter Road was smoother than usual. But, overall, thousands were stuck elsewhere — and that just is not acceptable.

The Altoona Mirror might’ve summed it up best when it referred to the parking situation as “disastrous in many ways.”

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