PSU leaves itself wanting more
UNIVERSITY PARK — Trailing 33-14 at its own 25 with 3:34 remaining and down to one timeout left, Pitt seemed to raise the white flag Saturday by running the football on first down.
James Franklin, at that point, had other ideas: He immediately decided to call timeout.
So if you left here thinking Penn State was fully satisfied with its 19-point victory in the first game between the teams at Beaver Stadium since 1999, think again.
Franklin said afterward he thought the Nittany Lions played a “complete game,” but they really didn’t.
Yes, their special teams were excellent, their defense was tough in the clutch and their offense got loose for enough big plays to maintain nearly a three-score comfort zone for most of the second half.
But the last sequence also sent a message that it wasn’t enough.
When Pitt’s Qadree Ollison was dumped for a 2-yard loss on first down, Franklin saw the chance to get the ball back in decent field position and punch in another score.
Instead, Pitt started throwing, converted a fourth down and drove to the Lions’ 8 before the Penn State defense forced a turnover on downs with 11 seconds left.
“They were able to pick up a first down, on I think fourth down, which extended the drive, and obviously you wouldn’t want to be in that situation,” Franklin said. “But yeah, ball backed up like that, we wanted an opportunity to get our offense on the field another time with good field position.”
Maybe that’s how today’s college football game has to be played, as style points are counted when December rolls around.
The Big 12 was shut out of the last year’s College Football Playoff, and to the committee gazing at scores three months from today, 40-14, would look better than 33-14 — especially if the Lions are trying to crack the field as a second Big Ten team like they were last year.
In many ways, this game should benefit Penn State.
The Lions played flawlessly in outclassing Akron, 52-0, and it surely didn’t come easily against Pitt.
Though the defense was tough in the red zone, limiting Pitt to field goals before a fourth-quarter touchdown, it also allowed the Panthers to dominate time of possession and keep Penn State’s offense on the sideline.
Pitt kept the ball for 38:20 of 60 minutes overall, including nearly 22 minutes of the 30-minute first half.
The Big Ten foes will notice that.
The Panthers ran tough and effectively used a shovel pass several times to gouge Penn State up the middle.
“We had a lot of long drives that could have ended on third downs,” linebacker Jason Cabinda said. “We need to better there, obviously. After we do well on first and second downs, we have to be more aggressive and be tighter in coverage.”
Pitt also hurt itself with turnovers (three) and penalties (six), and while it wasn’t a threat to win, it didn’t allow Penn State to score in its usual pinball fashion.
Saturday broke the Nits’ streak of eight straight 35-plus point performances.
“Not scoring 50 is not a disappointment, but obviously that’s what we’re trying to aim for every week,” receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. “Scoring 30 points in college football is tough so if we can do that, we’re in good shape.”
Pitt’s patient offensive style limited how often Penn State could unleash Saquon Barkley. The Nittany Lions only ran 52 offensive plays.
“You put 33 points on the board and guys want more,” Trace McSorley said.
That’s what happens when teams start to get mentioned in the same breath as the Ohio States, Michigans and USCs (nobody should be mentioned at this point with Alabama).
“At the end of the day, we try to play to our standards,” Cabinda said. “This is Penn State. It’s more about that than it is about how we played last week.”
Winning a little bit ugly should help Penn State iron out some of the issues that surfaced Saturday more than if the Lions breezed for a second straight week.
Because, rest assured, more adversity is coming.
Having dealt with it and still won by three touchdowns is better than seeing it for the first time in Iowa City or Columbus.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.