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44 Random Thoughts on Pitt

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Random musings on the series finale against the rival Panthers

Heather Weikel

On Saturday afternoon, on an intermittently rainy day, the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Pittsburgh Panthers engaged in a contest of American football. The two Pennsylvania rivals met for the 100th time in Beaver Stadium, and Penn State emerged with their 53rd win in the series, and third in a row, 17-10. I have some thoughts, which are set forth randomly below.

  1. And just like that, “The Keystone Classic” was over.
  2. Are we still calling it The Keystone Classic?
  3. This year, Sean Clifford completed 14 passes in 30 attempts.
  4. Last year, Trace McSorley completed 14 passes in 30 attempts. Odd.
  5. There have been more satisfying wins in the history of this series, that’s for sure. Last year’s 51-6 thrashing was enjoyable, and nothing can touch the 1981 win that produced the word, “With Todd Blackledge upstaging Dan Marino at quarterback...”
  6. Nothing about this 17-10 win is particularly memorable on the Penn State side, excepting Jordan Stout’s monster leg. This only time this game will be referenced beyond this season will be when the series someday renews, and some young Daily Collegian reporter notes that Penn State won the 100th and final game of the series back in 2019 by a score of 17-10.
  7. Much of that is due to the offensive frustrations that existed for both teams for a large part of the afternoon.
  8. Call me pollyanna (it won’t be the first time), but I still enjoyed this game and, unlike most people I’ve seen this week, I’m not particularly upset about anything that happened here.
  9. Since Kenny Pickett’s final heave fell incomplete on Saturday night, I’ve read critique after critique after critique of Ricky Rahne, the offensive scheme, Matt Limegrover, and the offensive line.
  10. I’m here to tell you that much of that is wrong.
  11. [waits for the flying tomatoes to stop]
  12. Look, Ricky Rahne isn’t Joe Moorhead. Most offensive coordinators are not. But Joe Moorhead also had the benefit of running his offense through Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorley, and the rest of an offensive crew that’s playing on Sundays.
  13. Last year, Ricky Rahne had Trace McSorley and a crew of wide receivers that managed to catch a combined case of the dropsies. This year, he has first year starting quarterback Sean Clifford and a squad of young talent trying to figure things out.
  14. Matt Limegrover has historically been a successful offensive line coach. He came here with a record and has been given the gift of four star offensive line recruits.
  15. It’s hard to believe that Penn State’s offensive struggles on Saturday lay solely at the feet of these two coaches, each of whom has shown the capacity for success. There’s a good reason not to be skeptical of that - it’s not true.
  16. Any version of this offense, whether it’s run by Joe Moorhead, Ricky Rahne, or anyone else, relies overwhelmingly on the quarterback. How do we know that? Because Joe Moorhead has told us so.

17. Go ahead and rewatch the game with this in mind. I promise you’ll see something different.

18. Sean Clifford has a bright future. He’s got a strong arm, athletic with a nice burst of speed, and he’s smart and competitive. He’s the kind of player you want running this offense (or any offense, really), particularly when the guy you’re replacing is Trace McSorley.

19. When Sean Clifford makes his reads properly and makes decisions quickly, it’s very successful. Look no further than the 13-play, 88-yard drive in the middle of the third quarter that led to Penn State’s second and final touchdown of the game.

20. Most people have pointed to Noah Cain as the reason that drive was successful, and he’s certainly a significant part of it. Cain is savvy, even as a freshman. He hits holes and gets the yardage that’s available to him.

21. And during that drive on Saturday, the yards were available to him. Throughout those 13 plays, the offensive line did an excellent job of creating space for Cain to move the chains - 4 yards, 3 yards, 9 yards, 7 yards, 4 yards, and then, finally 13 yards for the score. Six carries, 40 yards.

22. But that drive had 7 other plays, all of which showcased Clifford at his best. Decisiveness and accuracy got him 8 and 13 yard gains to Dotson, and a 13 yard swing pass to Cain out of the backfield. He made the right decision on an incompletion to KJ Hamler in the middle of the field, but it fell just short.

23. But the most impressive play of the drive? An eight yard toss to Cam Sullivan-Brown.

24. That play is the only time during that five minute stretch where the protection breaks down. It’s 3rd and 4, Pitt rushes, they have numbers, and CJ Thorpe gets caught flatfooted. The rush is on and Clifford sees it coming. He wriggles away and fires, connecting with Sullivan-Brown for the first down. That completion kept the drive alive and was the reason why Penn State was able to put up 7.

25. It’s worth noting that Cain’s best runs also came when Pitt was either in nickel or simply wasn’t rushing the offensive line. I don’t know if there was an option for Clifford to keep the ball in those scenarios, but if there was, he made the right decision in reading the defense and giving the ball to the freshman to get good yardage.

26. This drive is the best and worst of the Penn State offense. The best because it happened and we know it can happen. The worst because it didn’t happen again during the game.

27. Give Pitt credit. Narduzzi’s a defensive guy and they have enough athletes to create problems for the Penn State offense. He did that as much as possible.

28. But a nearly equal amount of the offensive issues were self-inflicted wounds. The offensive line was often outnumbered. It’s hard to block 6 or 7 rushers with 5 guys, which means the quarterback has to make the right decisions to take advantage of the hole in the defense and the running backs, to the extent they stay in, have to stand their ground.

29. Unfortunately, Clifford couldn’t connect with receivers on the deep throws and the running backs were...not remotely good (and I’m being polite) in pass protection.

30. Decisions have to come quicker, and they will. There are real opportunities to make things happen. For example, Penn State generated a first down on their final drive, with Clifford firing a perfect throw to Justin Shorter to move the chains. Journey Brown’s two carries got us to a reasonable third down play and Clifford decided to go for the dagger.

31. That pass fell incomplete and the Penn State Twitterverse was apoplectic.

32. The play design wasn’t necessarily flawed, though. Each receiver runs to the right side of the field, and the blockers do a decent job of fending off the rush. The line seals the backside, and if Cliff had felt that opening, he had about 20 yards of running room in front of him. If that happens, suddenly it’s 1st and 10 from the Pitt 45 with less than 2 minutes to play.

33. That’s exactly what fans have been begging for - just end the game on Penn State’s own terms. Instead, as we often have over the past few years, we left it to the defense to get a stop.

34. Thankfully, this defense was up to the task. But running out the clock would have been a solid ending that left fans with a better taste in their mouths.

35. I know everyone is sick of hearing about how “young” this team is, but expected Clifford to just step in and run the offense with the same veteran presence as Trace McSorley is asking for a virtual impossibility. This isn’t a video game, and I don’t care how impressive his attribute ratings are. He still needs to learn.

36. We live in a world that demands perfection, otherwise a team is written off. “You can’t beat Pitt by 20+? How can you ever expect to compete against Ohio State?”

37. In 2003, the eighth ranked Ohio State Buckeyes came to Beaver Stadium. Penn State was 2-6, could barely score points, and started an undersized and unimpressive defensive front. And yet, the Nittany Lions were about 5 feet short on a 60-yard field goal at the end of regulation of the upset.

38. Notably, the Buckeyes finished the season 11-2, beating Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl.

39. All that is to say, rivalry games are weird and it’s impossible to extrapolate season results from a single game. Pitt constantly acts like this is their Super Bowl and it shows. Kenny Pickett had a fine game, and they wanted this win for bragging rights until this series inevitably renews.

40. Penn State has talent that is getting things together. This will be a different team in November than it is today. It may very well be a different team in two weeks than it is today.

41. I don’t even need to mention Pat Narduzzi. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Come on, man - 4th and goal from the 1? That field goal would have been empty points.

42. Bye week? Let’s not lose this one, ok?

43. See you next Friday for Maryland. Fear the Terps?

44. We are.