The first quarter belonged to Penn State. The Lions scored twice while holding Pittsburgh off the board. Grant Haley got the action started just two minutes into the game when he picked off a Max Browne pass and returned it 42 yards to the 8 yard line. It took just one play for Trace McSorley to find tight end Mike Gesicki all by himself in the center of the end zone.
Notice how the defense jumped on the Saquon Barkley run option, leaving Gesicki alone. Both the middle linebacker and outside linebacker to the play side jumped forward, leaving Gesicki free. Rushing statistics were slanted in the favor of the home team through one frame; 50 yards on 4 carries compared to the Panthers’ 13 rushing attempts for 20 yards. With its mind on the run game, the defense left the pass game there for the taking. Two possessions later Gesicki scored for the second time, his fourth touchdown through two games, on a drive that was set up by a 36-yard Trace McSorley run.
Once again the threat of a Saquon Barkley run had the defense leveraged to the top side of the screen, leaving just two players to account for DeAndre Thompkins and Mike Gesicki. Thompkins did his part, blocking the defensive back opposite him while shielding the safety from a straight line of pursuit on Gesicki.
Midway through the second quarter the advantage Penn State held began to fade. Left tackle Ryan Bates gave up a sack to Dewayne Hendrix with seven minutes left in the half, which stalled a Penn State drive. Pittsburgh took the ball and drove 77 yards on 15 plays, taking 5:30 off the game clock. A personal foul by Cam Brown for a late hit helped extend the drive. The play would have set up a third and long just outside of field goal range for the Panthers. Instead Pitt threatened to score a touchdown before settling for a field goal. The Lion’s defense stiffened as their backs approached the goal line.
Penn State was unable to score on a late drive as time ran out to end the first half. Joe Moorhead got the ball to Saquon Barkley on two consecutive plays following halftime. With runs of 17 and 11 the ball was across midfield in a blink. The drive sputtered out soon after, and Blake Gillikin was called on to punt. From the 48 yard line, the sophomore got off a kick that was fair caught at the 5 yard line. It’s nice to have a weapon like Gillikin and his punting for the past couple of seasons has made it easy to forget the Lions’ struggles in the recent past at that position.
After a nice defensive hold, and a solid punt return of 14 yards by DeAndre Thompkins, Penn State started the second possession of the second half on the Pittsburgh 46. It only took one play, one pass from McSorley to Barkley, for the Lions to score the touchdown.
The safety at the top of the screen went to the outside. The slot corner provided underneath coverage in support of the two outside defensive backs. He was too late in his attempt to come back to the center of the field to help the linebacker with Barkley, and the result was a mismatch up the middle of the field. This is why defenses typically keep an extra man inside to provide help with Barkley; leaving him alone with a linebacker is a recipe for disaster.
The Panthers put together a sustained drive that covered 59 yards in an effort to answer, trailing 21-3. Once again the drive stalled inside the Penn State ten yard line, the stingy defense allowing just a field goal. The Lion’s offense answered with a quick three and out and needed help from their defensive teammates. Shareef Miller and Ryan Buchholz combined on a third down sack to answer that call, getting the ball back in the hands of McSorley just three plays and a punt later.
A 22-yard Barkley run with 15 yards tacked on for a horse-collar tackle by Dennis Briggs got the offense back in gear. An 18-yard reception by Brandon Polk took the ball to the Pittsburgh ten yard line a couple of plays later. Saquon Barkley took it from there, powering his way into the end zone.
The Panthers once again put together a long drive when it got the ball back. On second and goal Max Browne’s helmet came off following the play and he was forced to go to the sidelines on a critical 3rd and goal from the Penn State three yard line. Ben DiNucci, the backup quarterback, scored on a three-yard run and then added a two-point conversion pass to cut the deficit to 14 points with just over ten minutes to play.
The Lions needed a score or to hold the ball to re-establish control of the game. On 3rd and 11 DaeSean Hamilton came up with a clutch catch, reminiscent to the one that he was unable to reel in last year versus Pittsburgh, to continue the drive.
PSU took the ball just across midfield and then punted it away to the Panther one yard line. Once again Gillikin gave the defense leverage with a well-placed punt. The Lions were not able to score but with a punt to the one yard line and 3:59 chewed off the clock, it accomplished a great deal to help the team and defense.
On the second play from scrimmage Darrin Hall caught a pass while still in the end zone. Marcus Allen came over from his safety position and made sure that Hall stayed in the end zone, tackling him for a loss and a safety on the play.
The defense got a stop, points, and the ball back to its capable offense leading 30-14 with just 5:53 remaining on the clock.
Saquon Barkley took the free kick on the next play back 32 yards and a personal foul tacked on another 15 yards. The drive started on the Pittsburgh 40. The Lions held the ball, running clock and forcing the Panthers to begin using its time outs. Tyler Davis finished the drive with a 24-yard field goal to all but ice the game with 3:34 left and Penn State leading 33-14.
Ben DiNucci entered the game at quarterback again for Pittsburgh and led a drive down the field in the closing minutes. With 24 seconds left in the game Pat Narduzzi called time out with the Panthers facing fourth and goal from the Penn State 8 yard line. The play ended with a Robert Windsor sack for a loss of 9 yards and the Lions took a knee the following play to end the game.
Haley’s Stock Is Rising
Grant Haley provided the spark to the opening touchdown on the day for the Lions, with his interception and return. He also played a critical role in the defensive stop prior to the Lions’ second touchdown, with a sack coming in from his slot corner position.
If the term meteoric rise is used to describe the ascension of a player that has seemingly come out of nowhere to become a star, then it would be fair to say that Haley has risen like a comet to the status of a superstar during his Penn State playing career. And as a comet is much larger than a meteor, Haley has shown that he is not just a one-hit wonder. He is built to last and the trajectory of his accomplishments far surpasses that of any tiny little meteor.
Not to steal any thunder from Haley, but notice in the play how No.6 Cam Brown, lined up just outside the near hash mark at outside linebacker, contributed to this play. First he gave a convincing look at showing blitz. His run forward just before the snap was well-timed for a player that was set on sacking the quarterback. And even with that fake, Brown was able to quickly get back into pass coverage, deep enough to take away the easiest throw for a quarterback that was under the duress of a blitzing corner. Brown played at Penn State a little earlier in his career, due to the needs of the team, than was best for his personal development. In some ways that is similar to what Grant Haley was facing early in his career. Brown may prove to be one of those players that has been around so long that you don’t realize that he has become a game-changing player until it smacks you in the face.
Brown turned 19 on April 1 and still has a lot to learn. The 6’5”, 227-pound sophomore has a ceiling that has not yet been determined. Plays like this show his ability to flash the fear of a blitzing linebacker to the quarterback, while still having the ability to get ten yards deep to provide underneath coverage on the hot read.
At the time this article was published tropical storm-force winds from hurricane Irma were beginning to impact my house in Sarasota, Florida. The forecast is relatively grim for the area, but the complete story won’t be known until sometime on Monday afternoon.
Many college football teams’ travel plans or games have been altered due to this dangerous storm. The aftermath will require a great deal of work for people in the southeast. Since it is too early to speak on the results of the storm all we can do is hope that there is as little destruction as possible and that the injuries to living creatures is minimal.
There will certainly be a great deal of economic loss due to hurricane Irma. Those in its path will need many different types of assistance. It should also be remembered that hurricane Harvey and the destruction left in its wake remains a catastrophe for the people in the Houston area. While the cameras are sure to focus on the state of Florida in the following days and weeks, the images of the destruction more fresh than those from Harvey, we should not forget that there are people in Texas that remain in a state of need.
One great respite in the days leading up to the storm, once all the preparations were made and there was nothing left to do, has been college football. Penn State’s opponent next week, Georgia State, is likely going to have to alter their preparations leading up to the game due to the storm. One thing that can be done to sooth the pain of those negatively affected by the weather is to continue to play the games. And also, for Penn State to win those games. All of them.