The game on Saturday was a tighter battle than many people predicted. Both sides played well and it appeared that the game may be heading to overtime when, late in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh found themselves sitting just one yard from the end zone.
The Panthers made a great pass and catch to set up the first and goal scenario.
At the time of the play, it was 2nd and 19 from the 30 yard line with just over 6 minutes to go. Pittsburgh was in dire straits, trying to get a game-tying touchdown or at least a field goal to cut into the lead. While it would have been nice for the Lions to have come down with the ball, or knock it loose, you can see that Taysir Mack of Pittsburgh simply made a great catch. It was a great throw as well.
Donovan Johnson (3) had tight coverage and battled all the way to the ground and through the play, not giving up as his helmet came off. You can see that Johnson got his right hand on the ball and had his left arm around Mack’s waist. Johnson’s right leg also tripped up Mack’s right foot, which may have kept him out of the end zone. Had Mack been able to plant that foot cleanly, he might have had enough momentum to get the extra half yard. There wasn’t too much more that Johnson could have done.
If you look at what Johnson did to try to make the play, his head gear was the least of the sacrifice. Johnson forced his right arm over Mack’s shoulder and tried to pry the ball out with the back of his hand, leaving his arm and shoulder in a very bad position as they fell to the ground. Johnson’s body was pulled along with Wade and Mack, you can see the force of the play in the way that his body reacts when they hit the ground. All of this from a player that missed the majority of 2018 with an injury after having a great showing early in the year. Johnson put his body on the line and he walked off slowly after the play with help from the medical staff.
Lamont Wade came in, and while he was technically a few inches late, he did get his left hand on the ball before it was an official catch. Mack made a great play, especially considering it would have been 3rd and 19 had the ball dropped to the ground.
So it seemed that all was lost, or at least tied. Pittsburgh was set up, first and goal from inside the one, ready to even the score in the closing minutes. But that’s not how it went.
On first down Pitt came out with their big fullback, 6’3 280-pound Rashad Wheeler. At the snap, the fullback and running back went opposite directions, with the running back jumping into the air, faking a rush up the middle. Cam Brown (6) came off the edge after being chipped by the tight end. Pitt was setting up both tight ends for a pass to the left side of the field. The tight end on the left got tied up with Shaka Toney (18) and did not get a quick enough release to get open in time for Pickett to find him.
The tight end on the right side was covered by Lamont Wade underneath and John Reid from behind, so even had Brown not hampered Pickett’s progress that would still not have been open. Jan Johnson (36) did a nice job of hanging in the hole to make sure that the running back did not have the ball, then he also cut off the path to the pylon for Pickett.
It looked like the play was blown up by Brown alone, but with a closer look, Shaka Toney, Wade, and Reid had a lot to do with taking away Pickett’s options as well.
Not only was the result good for the Lions, but we should remember how hard it must have been for them to honor their reads and not sell out on the run up the middle, with the massive fullback in the game.
On second down Shaka Toney contributed again by occupying the running back just long enough so that he could not fully focus on blocking Garrett Taylor (17). Had Toney got sucked inside with the fake hand off, it would have left the blocker clean and Taylor may not have been able to keep Pickett out of the end zone.
Instead it was a great tackle by the senior safety and it didn’t take long until a half-dozen Lions showed up for a nice, old-fashioned gang tackle.
On third down Pittsburgh again showed a formation that leaned toward a run play. With an extra lineman in the game, and two backs, the Panthers tried to trick the linebackers into covering the wrong back. No. 23 was lined up right in front of Jan Johnson, and at the snap he took a fake hand off while No. 21 slid into the flat out of the backfield. The misdirection worked, as Johnson was a step slow covering the back, and had Cam Brown been slower getting to the quarterback, the play may have gone for six points.
Instead Pickett was forced to throw the ball away. After a few years of anticipation, Cam Brown looks like the player we all hoped he would become. His body has filled in, his maturity off the field is a major asset, and he’s running to the ball and making plays. One way to stop a pass is to cover the back out in the flat. Another way is to rush the quarterback so effectively that there isn’t time to find the intended receiver.
On fourth down the home field upright did its job, deflecting the field goal attempt safely to the turf. The fans inside the stadium did their part, creating the loudest torrent of noise that we’ve witnessed this year. The goal line stand was a great all-around effort from the team, the fans, and of course, the left upright.
It’s easy to forget the play that set up the goal line stand. Sure, it was a successful catch at the one yard line, but had it not been so tightly contested, it could have gone for a touchdown. Penn State’s defense never gave up. It bent but it did not break.