Lack of running game hurts Pitt’s chances

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski Penn State defensive end Shane Simmons pressures Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett on Saturday at Beaver Stadium.

UNIVERSITY PARK — Pitt’s last-second effort fell short against No. 13 Penn State on Saturday at Beaver Stadium, 17-10, despite being tied at the half.

After a 40-minute lightning delay before the game, Penn State’s (3-0, 0-0 Big Ten) defense was too much for the Panthers’ (1-2, 0-1 ACC) running game, finishing with just 24 rushing yards on 25 carries.

“We didn’t run the ball very effectively early in the game, but we felt like we had to try to establish (the run game) first,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said.

The Panthers had no players rush for more than 9 yards.

Junior quarterback Kenny Pickett was 35-for-51 with a career-high 372 yards and no interceptions. He led his team in rushing attempts with nine for 7 yards. Narduzzi had high praise for his quarterback after the game.

“I don’t know if Kenny can play any better,” Narduzzi said. “That guy played his tail off. He made some throws that you guys have not seen him make before. He’s throwing on time, he’s throwing in a rhythm. Kenny did a heck of a job.”

Down by seven late in the fourth quarter, Narduzzi elected to kick a field goal instead of going for the touchdown on fourth-and-1, and Pitt consequently missed the field goal.

Prior to the miss, Pickett threw a 29-yard pass to wide receiver Taysir Mack, which set the Panthers up on the 1-yard line down by seven.

“Kenny came up to me and said ‘make a play,'” Mack said. “He really trusted me, and I appreciate that. … I appreciate that the coaches trust me to go out there and do my job when I was just trying to go out there and execute. I felt like it’s important that the team tells me they believe in me.”

On the final drive of the game, Pickett found Mack again on a 28-yard fourth-and-12 completion to keep the drive alive. It was business as usual.

“I’m just doing my job,” Mack said.

For the second week in a row, the Nittany Lions were trailing their opponent at halftime, though the second-half explosion seen in the game against Buffalo last week was omitted from Saturday’s game. Instead, Pitt played them tight until the last play and gave them a scare coming down to the wire.

Pickett felt like the passing game needs some work.

“I think we need to make more explosive plays with the short passing game,” Pickett said. “If we got guys in space, let’s go do something with it and put it in the end zone because we have all these yards, but we’re not getting any points out of it so we gotta find a way to get points up on the board.”

Pitt’s defense was a major part in keeping the Panthers in the game, making Sean Clifford and Penn State’s offensive line visibly uncomfortable. The first half was full of the Panthers forcing Clifford into pressure when throwing or on the ground.

“We just gotta keep getting better and keep applying pressure on the gas pedal,” Pitt defensive lineman Jaylen Twyman said. “Just keep getting better everyday.”

Defensive back Paris Ford led his team with six solo tackles, 11 in total.

One thing Pitt missed Saturday was the impact of wide receiver Maurice Ffrench. He had the biggest game of his career last week against Ohio, when he had 138 yards on 10 receptions, including a 74-yard touchdown.

Through the first two weeks, Ffrench had quickly become Pickett’s No. 1 target, but his eight receptions for 43 yards Saturday was underwhelming for Pitt, who needed a better game through the air if it wanted the victory.

Punter Kirk Christodoulou had a huge game, averaging 45 yards on six punts. Penn State punt returner KJ Hamler had little room to work with, keeping one of the Nittany Lions’ most dangerous assets from making a big play.

“(Christodoulou) did a heck of a job,” Narduzzi said. “As good a football game as he’s played. He pinned them down how many times inside? He was bombing … it’s great for his confidence, he was a weapon today.

The Australian’s longest kick of the day was for 62 yards, and he hit four within the 20-yard line.

This will most likely be the last time the two squads see each other for several years, if not forever. Penn State leads the series 53-43-4, with a 19-6 record at Beaver Stadium. This was Pitt’s third consecutive loss to the Nittany Lions, as the Panthers have not won since the beginning of the current four-game back series in 2016.

“I’m just hoping in the future that we end up playing these guys again, and I’m just moving on to the next game,” Twyman said.