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The Morning After: Young Players Gain Experience In A Subdued, Soggy Stadium

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There was a great deal of improvement for the Lions from week one to week two.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The remnants of tropical storm Gordon arrived in Pittsburgh well before the 8 p.m. kickoff and the fans were soaked before they sat down in their wet seats. Rain fell early and often and soon the tears of the Panther faithful added to the deluge of water inside Heinz Field. The impact of the field conditions on the game was minimal. Following a competitive first half, Penn State pulled away, scoring 44 unanswered points.

There was confusion on the Pitt side prior to the opening coin flip, and although the Panthers won the toss, the captains chose to receive the kickoff. Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi was not pleased with the mistake and he showed his displeasure with his captains on national television before the game began. It wasn’t the last time Narduzzi would be upset on the day; we may need to start a Gofundme account to help the coach cover the expenses of recovering from his hurt feelings.

The Lions held the Panthers to just three plays on offense before forcing a punt. It took just three plays on offense for KJ Hamler to find the end zone for the Lions on the opening drive, taking a jet sweep around the left side for a 32-yard touchdown run.

Some defensive substitutes for Penn State entered the game during the second possession. Lamont Wade, Micah Parsons, and Shaka Toney all took to the field. After an opening week that saw defensive coordinator Brent Pry make mass substitutions, searching to find the right combination of players, this week only one player per position group entered at a time, helping the defense remain cohesive. Pittsburgh went down the field putting together a ten-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ate up five minutes of game clock. The extra point was unsuccessful, as the snap was fumbled. The Lions led 7-6 midway through the opening quarter. It was as close at the Panthers would get.

KJ Hamler took the next kickoff out across the forty yard-line and then at the end of the play, fifteen yards were added for a facemask penalty. The Lions started at the Pitt 45. After a first down run by Miles Sanders, the drive stalled out and Jake Pinegar missed a 45-yard field goal wide to the right.

Ayron Monroe, Ellis Brooks, and Donovan Johnson came in for the Lions on the next defensive series as Brent Pry continued to use the depth on the roster. Penn State came up with a stop on the drive, which was extended by a penalty. Amani Oruwariye intercepted the ball near the goal-line to end the drive.

The play by Oruwariye looked similar to his game-ending interception in overtime a week earlier. On both plays, the senior cornerback was able to cover his man thoroughly and then react to the ball as if he were the intended receiver.

The ball was spotted at the one yard-line so the Lions were pinned deep. It didn’t matter. Miles Sanders took the ball for a long run across midfield on the first play. Penalties on each team were swapped, and a few plays later Blake Gillikin punted the ball to the Panther three yard-line.

Pitt started the drive with a 63-yard run into PSU territory by Qadree Ollison. The drive stalled and a field goal from 35 yards out missed to the right after another mishandled snap, and the 7-6 lead held with 8:49 to go before halftime.

On the next drive freshman running back Ricky Slade fumbled after making a first down run to give Pitt the ball back at the 31 of Penn State. After gaining a first down the Panthers faced a 4th and 3 from the four yard-line. Having already mishandled two snaps on kick attempts, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi opted to go for it. Penn State’s defense held.

Watch the black line that marks the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball. Nick Scott came around from his safety spot at the top of the screen to record the tackle, but notice the sea of white that jumps to the Pitt side of the line at the snap of the ball. There was nowhere to go for the ball carrier. Now that is backfield penetration my friends, and at a time when it was critical.

Blake Gillikin booted a punt back into Panther territory with under five minutes left in the second quarter following a short Penn State drive. Jesse Luketa and Micah Parsons, two freshman linebackers, were on the field to defend the final Pittsburgh drive of the half.

With a minute left, another exchange on special teams was mishandled by the Panthers. This time the snap on a punt was fumbled and Penn State took over at the Pitt 35. On 2nd and ten the PSU wide receivers blocked nicely in front of a Miles Sanders screen pass that went for 21 yards. The effort set up a touchdown catch by KJ Hamler one play later and with 26 seconds on the clock, the score was 14-6 in favor of the visiting Lions. Pitt would not threaten to close the gap the remainder of the way.

Penn State was unable to move the ball on the first possession after half time but Gillikin again did his job, sending a 52-yard kick to the Pitt 15. The defense knocked the Panthers back two yards following three plays, and the punt only went out to the forty yard-line. The punt and defensive hold resulted in a short field for the offense.

Miles Sanders gained nine yards on first down but the drive almost stalled out until a roughing the passer on third down gave the Lions a new set of downs. Trace McSorley capped the drive with a touchdown run from four yards out for a 21-6 lead.

With the stands emptying out, already mostly empty since halftime, the Panthers put together an uninspired offensive effort. Two penalties led to a 2nd and 17 from their own 1. A holding call was made while the quarterback was in the end zone, and Penn State recorded a safety, credited to defensive tackle Ellison Jordan. The wind officially left the sails of the remaining Panther fans, sitting in their soggy seats with rain pelting them sideways in their sad faces.

The teams swapped punts for the next four possessions but DeAndre Thompkins took the last one back 39 yards to ice the game for Penn State just before the start of the fourth quarter.

Trace McSorley found Mac Hippenhammer for the first catch of the young wide receiver’s career, an eleven yard touchdown to take the lead out to 37-6. Mark Allen added a rushing touchdown with six minutes left and the lead was 44-6. Sean Clifford made an appearance at quarterback and with his first throw at the college level, he hit Brandon Polk for a touchdown and 51-6 lead.

Once the floodgates were opened in the second half, there was no stopping the torrent of Penn State offensive power. It was a fine showing on both sides of the ball for the Lions, who return to Happy Valley next week to take on Kent State.

Notes

  • Penn State gave up 214 yards rushing in the first half and held on to only give Pitt 6 points for their effort. Part of the reason that the Panthers were not able to get more points, along with a couple of missed kicks, was the futile effort through the air, gaining just 17 yards in the opening half. Pitt finished with 38 yards passing and 39 rushing in the second half.
  • There were many players that saw the field for the Lions on the defensive side of the ball. While there remains competition for starting positions, or spots on the depth chart, it is also important that the young players get playing time. Through two games the Penn State three-deep has seen the field enough for the coaches to evaluate the talent and for the players to satisfy their desire to get their feet onto the playing field.
  • PJ Mustipher, Nick Tarburten and Jesse Luketa saw a lot of playing time late in the game. The young defensive players benefited greatly by being able to run around and experience what it is like to compete at this level. It is possible that one or more of the three will take a redshirt, with the new NCAA rule allowing freshman to play four games without taking away a year of eligibility.
  • 27 players recorded a tackle for Penn State. While Micah Parsons led the way with 7 total tackles, the freshman linebacker looked the part of a player that was in high school at this time last year. It is fun to watch Parsons running around on the field, but we should remember not to expect too much out of him as he acclimates to the college game. Coach Pry knows what he is doing, so if the youngster remains a platoon player, it should be assumed that the role is appropriate.
  • Cry me three rivers? Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi objected early in the game when the referees would not hold the Penn State offense long enough for his defense to counter with substitutions. The head Nard coach got a fifteen-yard penalty for his antics, and in retrospect, the game slowly slipped away from that point.