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After all this talk about offense, about the havoc that Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorley and Mike Gesicki had the potential to wreak, it was a defensive score that ended Pitt’s flickering hopes of pulling off an upset against Penn State. Marcus Allen went shooting into the end zone and dropped Darrin Hall behind the goal line on a short pass in the flat, giving the Nittany Lions a safety, a 30-14 lead and possession of the football with just under six minutes to play Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
The Lions didn’t produce their usual deluge of offense and scored their fewest points since defeating Ohio State, 24-21, last October. But their 33-14 victory over the Panthers exorcised a few demons and prevented Pitt from putting together its first three-game winning streak against Penn State since the 1940s.
And, to be fair, those celebrated PSU playmakers did wreak their share of havoc – enough to keep the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions on top of Pitt by double digits for most of the afternoon.
“Overall, I thought we played a very complete game,” coach James Franklin said. “Our offense is very explosive, and that’s how we were today. I’d like to see us sustain more drives, but I thought we showed we can score at any moment. I thought our defense did a great job of holding them to field goals early on… and special teams, I thought that was the area of the game where we played our best.”
Here’s a look at the good and the bad:
• Saquon Barkley took charge of the game in the second half. He finished the afternoon with 183 all-purpose yards – 88 rushing, 45 receiving and 50 on a pair of kickoff returns – and scored two touchdowns, both in the second half. “If Saquon has opportunities for big plays, he’s going to get them,” Franklin said. “It wasn’t like we went into halftime saying, we’ve got to give Saquon the ball more. We call plays based on what the defense does, and he either gets the ball or he doesn’t.”
• The Lions had two interceptions, one of which set up a touchdown and both of which were by defensive backs. A year ago, the secondary supplied only six picks all season. Penn State has been prioritizing takeaways, so this is an encouraging development. “I still think there are probably a few balls every single game that we can get our hands on,” Franklin said. “We’ve got some guys who kind of lock in for the big hit, so I think we can get a few more interceptions.”
• Franklin had called Pitt return specialist Quadree Henderson a potential “game-wrecker” earlier in the week.
Henderson did not wreck the game. The longest of his three punt returns was 13 yards, and his net total was zero yards after he had to backtrack to catch two other punts. “I thought that had a lot to do with our punting – our location and hang time,” Franklin said, “and probably more so our coverage units.”
The Lions also did a nice job on kickoff returns, holding Henderson to 33 yards on two attempts.
• Blake Gillikin was the unsung hero behind Allen’s safety. With the score tightening up and Penn State needing to pin Pitt deep, the sophomore punter hit a 42-yarder that was downed at the 4-yard line, leaving the Panthers’ offense with no margin for error.
• Panthers running back Qadree Ollison had a pretty good day, rushing for 96 yards and catching two passes for 30 yards. With Ollison averaging a robust 6.4 yards per carry, Pitt was able to chew up the clock and keep Penn State’s offense off the field. The Panthers outgained the Nittany Lions, 342 yards to 312. But Penn State bettered their average gain per pay by 2 yards (6.0 to 4.0), and as Franklin acknowledged after the game, time of possession isn’t as meaningful a stat as it used to be. “For us, we’re mainly worried about the scoreboard,” he said.
• Penn State wasn’t able to fully capitalize on the defensive attention that Barkley received, and one issue was that McSorley didn’t connect with the wide receivers very often. The Lions got six catches for 79 yards from their wideouts, with DaeSean Hamilton supplying half of the catches and more than half of the yards (45).
Early in the game, McSorley misfired on a couple of throws that looked as though they could have gone for big yardage. “I think we were a little off,” Franklin said. “I think Trace missed some throws early in the game that he normally doesn’t.”
• Penn State’s secondary took a physical beating on Saturday. Allen left the game briefly in the second half, while Amani Oruwariye exited late in the fourth quarter and did not return after being helped off the field. His status for next week is uncertain.
• Miles Sanders’ afternoon consisted of one carry and one fumble. He pounced on the loose ball, so the Lions avoided what could have been a very costly turnover. But they obviously need a reliable backup behind Barkley, which makes Sanders’ fumble a worrisome miscue.
• Cam Brown’s personal foul late in the first half hurt Penn State at a key moment in the game. It erased a negative-yardage play and set up a field goal that cut into what had been a two-touchdown lead, giving Pitt some momentum just before halftime.
Penn State’s nonconference finale will be against a Georgia State team that will be an overwhelming underdog despite having more than two weeks to prepare. By next Saturday, the Panthers will have had 17 days to get ready for this game, but their season-opening result – a 17-10 loss to Tennessee State on Aug. 31 – does not bode well.
The Lions will be looking for their first unbeaten nonconference season since going 4-0 in 2014, the first year of the Franklin era. And to hear Franklin tell it, they will be treating Georgia State like any other opponent. As he noted emphatically after the victory over Pitt, that’s exactly how Penn State treated their traditional rival this past week, and everything worked out nicely.
“We’re 1-0 this week,” Franklin said. “We were able to get a win. That’s what this was for us. I know last year, when [Pitt] won, it was like the Super Bowl, but for us this was like beating Akron.”