After a 40-minute weather delay, Penn State took on the Pitt Panthers for the 100th time Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
The Nittany Lions won the toss, and forced a quick three-and-out by the Panther offense after a nice open-field tackle by cornerback John Reid on third down.
Sean Clifford and the offense started at their own 26, and completed his first pass to Pat Freiermuth for 16 yards. On a third and seven later in the drive, Clifford the Clutch Blue and White Lion avoided the sack and sprinted down the right sideline for 13 yards and another Nittany Lion first down. He was blindsided later on the drive and lost the ball, but Michal Menet pounced on it to avoid complete disaster, and two plays later, Blake Gillikin came on to pin Pitt at their 13.
The Panthers went backwards on their next drive after a Micah Parsons tackle in the backfield, but a third down screen pass from Kenny Pickett to A.J. Davis was set up perfectly and went for 48 yards to the Penn State 40. Aided by a Parsons tipped pass on first down and an open-field tackle on third down, Pitt was forced to punt after gaining just three additional yards.
Clifford and company started their next drive 98 yards from a score, and Journey Brown rambled down the right sideline for 85 yards on third down and nine. Clifford’s next pass was picked off, but Cam Bright interfered with Freirmuth to negate the turnover. Two plays later, Devyn Ford punched it in from a yard out, and the Nittany Lions led 7-0.
After another Pitt three-and-out, Kirk Christodoulou again put the Nittany Lions in the shadow of their own goal-line, but KJ Hamler took the short pass and weaved his way up and down the field for 53 yards to the Panther 43. The drive stalled there, and Pitt was once again working with a long field as the first quarter came to a close.
The Panthers managed six first downs on their ensuing 18-play drive that consumed over nine minutes of clock. The Panthers had goal-to-go from the 10, but on third down from the 2, Pickett had trouble with the snap and hurried a throw for a five yard loss, resulting in a 25-yard field goal to cut the Penn State lead to 7-3.
Pitt forced a rare three-and-out, and benefited from a John Reid defensive holding penalty to keep their next drive alive. The Panther passing attack used several wide-open chunk plays to take it inside the five, and Vincent Davis ran it in to give the Panthers a 10-7 advantage with 2:08 left in the first half. On third down from their own 15, Clifford hit Ricky Slade wide open across the middle for 40 yards, and Slade later converted a fourth and short to the Pitt 33. However, Clifford was sacked back to the 39, setting up Jordan Stout for a Penn State record 57-yard field goal. Stout drilled the kick to make it a 10-10 game at the half.
Penn State started the second half from their 20, and after gaining 15 yards in a handful of plays, Clifford did his best Trace McSorley impression and heaved the ball 52 yards up for grabs for Dan Chisena at the Pitt 13, but the play was reversed upon replay review, leading to a Gillikin punt. The Panthers’ first drive of the second half was briefly extended by a questionable Reid pass interference penalty, but the defense stiffened and Hamler made the fair catch at the 12.
The Nittany Lions marched 88 yards, aided by a nice leaping grab by Jahan Dotson, several solid runs by Noah Cain, and a rare reception by Cam Sullivan-Brown (formerly of the transfer portal). Cain capped off the drive, making a cut to his left and darting in the opening for a 14-yard touchdown, giving Penn State a 17-10 lead with 5:50 left in the third.
Jan Johnson finally got through for the first Nittany Lion sack on Pickett during the next Pitt drive, and the Panthers were eventually forced to punt after another sack by Cam Brown. Penn State failed to move it past the 49, but excellent punt coverage, followed by solid tackling by Shane Simmons and Tariq Castro-Fields forced Pitt into a long third down to begin the fourth quarter. Pickett completed another long screen pass to A.J. Davis and another completion to Maurice Ffrench to extend the drive, but their march eventually stalled at the Penn State 48.
The teams appeared to be exchanging punts, but after a timeout, the Panthers converted a fourth down deep down the field and eventually drove inside the Nittany Lion 10. The Penn State defense stiffened, forcing two incompletions and stuffing Pickett at the one, before Alex Kessman missed the 19-yard field goal. Although Penn State was unable to run out the clock on the next drive, the defense held off the Panthers one final time and Penn State claimed the victory 17-10.
Clifford finished with 222 yards passing and a 108.8 quarterback rating, while Journey Brown had 109 yards on 10 carries for the Nittany Lions, perhaps putting a stranglehold on the running back spot. Despite possessing the ball for eight more minutes than the Nittany Lions, Pitt failed to convert one of their three red zone attempts, and the Nittany Lions held the Panthers to just 24 rushing yards on 25 attempts (.96 yards per rush).
Penn State has an off week before heading to College Park to play Maryland Friday night, September 27.