Pitt (2-0) 42, Penn State (1-1) 39
Many of the younger fans of Pitt and Penn State football now know something about this rivalry. A game like Saturday’s, played before the largest crowd ever to attend a sporting event in Pittsburgh (and that’s saying something!), firmly established the rivalry in their minds and enhanced it in the ancient minds who lived it back in the day. This rivalry should be continued beyond the current, four game commitment. It should be a permanent annual event.
Big Al Got It Right
No one won the game prediction (who knew?) but Big Al got a couple of things right. He initially felt than it would be a three-point game decided late in the fourth quarter but waffled after hearing James Franklin attempting to play down the emotional significance of the game to Penn State players. Thing is, in spite of Franklin’s benumbing diatribe, the players felt it! These guys played with fervor and commitment — just like a rivalry game. I’m glad their hearts didn’t hark unto Franklin’s bullshit.
The other thing Al got uncannily “spot on” (when did that British bullshit affectation enter the mainstream of American sports trash talk?) was the following:”The Nittany Kitties will sleepwalk through the 1st quarter and find themselves down by 14+ points before the 2nd quarter even starts.”
So, kudos to Big Al.
Slow Starts’ll Killya
A noon game on the road. How long have we been preaching about being ready for Freddy at the opening gun? How long have we continued to be disappointed by the predictable laggard performances in this situation? Well back into the waning days of St. Joe, it seems that this team developed a bad habit that the can’t seem to shake. No exception in this game. It appeared to be headed for a 42-0 blowout in the first quarter, and by halftime it appeared that the Nittany Lions were barely hanging on. How many times has that scenario repeated itself?
In spite of the slow start, the guys showed a great winning spirit after halftime. They never gave up, scoring 18 points in the final quarter to get the Lions within three points of the hated Panthers.
The comeback fell short, but these guys deserve a lot of credit for staying in the game and giving it the proverbial 110% right until the end. A crucial mistake at the end prevented PSU from being in position to attempt a field goal to tie the game. The blame has to be shared by Trace McSorley, who overthrew a ball intended for Mike Gesicki that sailed into the waiting arms of Ryan Lewis of Pitt, along with the two Penn State receivers in the vicinity whose mindsets should have immediately turned defensive when the ball sailed high. Even if they had tackled or face-guarded Lewis for a penalty, they should have kept him from nabbing the ball. A penalty wouldn’t have ended Penn State’s chances. The interception did.
Defensively, We Weren’t Ready
I told you to watch out for Quadree Henderson. Apparently, the PSU defense didn’t get the message. They seemed intent on stopping James Conner. Pitt played the inside-outside game, and this wasn’t even basketball. When they were expecting Conner to run it up the gut, they would run Henderson and his almost namesake Qadree Ollison (a Quadree and a Qadree confused me) running jet sweeps to the outside, for which Penn State had no answer. Pitt threw in some Conner power runs to keep the defense guessing, and the net result was 341 rushing yards on 56 carries. Conner had 117 yards on 22 carries, Henderson had 4 for 58, and Ollison had 9 for 36. The quarterback, Nathan Peterman had 8 carries for 52 yards. In all, eight guys ran the ball for Pitt. Hey, I told you that Pitt was a running team.
OK, Jason Cabinda was out with a broken hand, so Nyeem Wartman-White had to move to MLB. But the tackling once again sucked. The front seven was consistent pushed around by the Pitt OL, and the secondary must have been anticipating the run on many passing situations when they allowed receivers to wander around in unimpinged upon fields of clover. Peterman wound up 11-15 passing for 91 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Two of his receivers have familiar names to those of you who paid attention: Quadree Henderson and James Conner.
PSU Offense Rules
McSorley spread the ball around to eight wide receivers and finished 24-35 for 332 yards through the air with one TD and one INT. Of course, what will be remembered most (unfairly) is the interception that ended the game.
Saquon Barkley was the man of the day. In a winning effort he would have earned the game ball. While he fell short of a 100-yard game (20-85), he showed the combination of power running and tricky moves not seen at Penn State since Ki-Jana Carter over twenty years ago, finishing the day with four touchdowns. Unfortunately, his one fumble will stick in the minds of many and certainly will haunt him. Nevertheless, we all need to look past that, because this young former freshman speedster is now a worthy cornerstone of the Penn State offense, one who will long be remembered as a once in a generation phenomenon. One cannot help be impressed with Barkley (no relation to Sir Charles) — and he’s just a sophomore!
Think of what Barkley — and this offense — might be able to do with a decent offensive line! Add a couple of Jeff Hartings and Marco Rivera caliber guys and you might see a juggernaut offense similar to the Kerry Collins teams of the mid-1990s. But we all know where our weak spots are and they are The Five Traffic Cones.
Special Teams Improving
Penn State has a punter. Yay! Blake Gillikan punted five times for an average of 46.6 yards with a long of 69. And John Reid gave us a great punt return of 59 yards. Joey Julius was putting most of his kickoffs into the end zone, except for the one that led to Quadree Henderson’s 84-yard return (oops, there’s that name again). And Tyler Davis was 1-1 to continue his perfect streak. Things are looking up, by and large, for the PSU special teams.
What We Can Draw from This Game
Well, 39 points is the most ever scored by Penn State in a losing effort. That sort of portends an exciting, nail-biting season ahead. Our defense is not up to what we Penn State fans are used to, that’s for sure. The offense, with its collection of serviceable receivers (even Gesicki at this point), a world-class running back, and a quarterback who will get better and better, will be what provides the thrills for us this year. Complete reorientation will be necessary to change our thought patterns from “well, the defense is going to have to give us some points” to “I hope the offense can score enough points to make up for the porous sieve of a defense.”
In short, the Nittany Lions of 2016 won’t be able to outscore opponents with decent defenses; however, there will be lots of watchable, entertaining games with their second tier opponents, like the one you just witnessed.
I’ll be back soon with a preview of the Temple game.