COLLINS: Mistakes, not youth, sink Penn State vs. Pitt

(Wilkes-Barre) Citizens' Voice (TNS)
  • Pitt's James Conner ran for 117 yards and a touchdown.
  • Penn State's Saquon Barkley ran for five touchdowns.
  • Penn State's Trace McSorley passed for 332 yards.

PITTSBURGH — There is no Penn State player these last few years who has been more upbeat after losses — nailbiters and blowouts alike — than DaeSean Hamilton.

He has seen the forest for the trees fairly consistently since he made his debut in Ireland in 2014. Since then, he has caught 138 passes. He’s a steady-as-it-gets receiver. The type of guy on which the Nittany Lions offense could rely in the times it couldn’t rely on much of anything.

Saturday afternoon, in the bowels of Heinz Field, he sat in a corner, surrounded by reporters, struggling and badly failing to hold back tears.

The feeling of that perfectly thrown pass from quarterback Trace McSorley hitting his hands, then falling to the grass near the Pittsburgh 25-yard line, still rated as fresh in his mind; part of it, he knows, always will. Plays like that are the difference in games like this, the nailbiters. Second-and-6 from the Penn State 44. Streaking wide open toward the end zone, with a step — maybe a step-and-a-half — on Pittsburgh safety Terrish Webb. He’d have scored, he said. He just knew it. And Penn State would have won.

“I’ve got to put it behind me,” Hamilton said, his red eyes saying as much as the words. “But, I’ll never forget it.”

The guy who catches everything didn’t catch that one, though. He didn’t score. And Penn State didn’t win. It fell behind by 14 points fewer than eight minutes into the game, and by 21 fewer than 20 minutes in, and by the time it had all set in, a crazy comeback fell short for the second time in its last two losses.

The final was 42-39.

Remember that score. It will live a long life in Pittsburgh’s football history, and be an infamous memory forPenn State.

A lot of stories are going to appear in newspapers today about how Penn State’s offense, new and young and fresh, largely brought this team back, and about what that means for the future.

Some may be written about the guts quarterback Trace McSorley showed, or the five touchdowns running back Saquon Barkley found for a team that, at various points in the first half, looked like its best play might be running for the buses. A few might focus on Hamilton, and the grace he showed during unquestionably the darkest moment of his otherwise bright career.

All of it would be valid, too.

But at its core, this should be a story about a football team that continues to just make critical error after critical error, time and again, too often to beat a team with any sort of ability. The major malfunction, the bullet to the foot, always seems around the corner.

“The reality,” head coach James Franklin said, “is that we didn’t play smart enough, we didn’t play mistake-free enough, to win.”

Think about this game this way: If Penn State plays a bit smarter, makes one or two fewer mistakes, it probably beats a Pittsburgh team that frankly looked pretty unstoppable most of Saturday afternoon on offense, piling up 341 rushing yards with an attack on the rebuilt Penn State defensive line and thin linebacking corps that looked incapable of stopping at any moment, never mind big ones.

--For the second straight week, a speed-rushing defensive end — Pitt’s Ejuan Price — sped past left tackle Brendan Mahon, hit McSorley, and forced a fumble deep in Penn State territory that led to a touchdown.

-- For the second straight week, McSorley had multiple fumbles. Some of it is because he is getting hit from the blindside too often. A lot of it is because he isn’t protecting the ball as well as he should.

-- Penn State had a few false start penalties early, as well as a bad/early snap that led to a busted play.

-- In a situation where the Nittany Lions might have considered going for it on fourth down inside the Pittsburgh 40, Barkley fumbled the possession away.

-- On the kickoff after Penn State cut the Pittsburgh lead to 35-31 with just more than 12 minutes left, Lions kicker Joey Julius badly misplaced the ball, allowing dangerous Pitt return man Quadree Henderson to field it at the 6 in the middle of the field, instead of off to the side the coverage was set up to defend. He returned it 84 yards to set up what would be the eventual game-winning touchdown.

-- Just five plays after Hamilton’s drop, McSorley threw a pass into the end zone, perilously up for grabs, that cornerback Ryan Lewis picked off to seal the win. McSorley was throwing it to Mike Gesicki, a covered receiver. Lewis evidently was covering another receiver, freshman Irvin Charles, who ran the wrong route, allowing Lewis to drift closer to the ball and catch it like a center fielder.

A few plays here and there happening just a bit differently. That’s what separates big wins from bitter losses. Those are the types of plays Penn State just hasn’t seemed to be able to make against a quality opponent the last few seasons.

Most of this was somewhat understandable in recent years, honestly. The Nittany Lions were young, inexperienced. Now, they’re younger than they are inexperienced. Now, and Franklin hinted at this in his postgame news conference, the results are getting more important than the development. For sure, this is still a young team, but it has plenty of young players who have played a bunch. Those players have to eliminate these mistakes.

“It would have been easy for us to quit,” Hamilton said. “But for us to battle back, it speaks a lot about the team.”

Sure does. But Penn State needs to use this as a line-in-the-sand game for the program moving forward. This is a team with loads of potential, with an offense that works, with a head coach who can bring in talent, with a star running back and a developing defense.

And that’s a far cry, right now, from being good.

Pittsburgh defensive lineman Tyrique Jarrett (6) forces a fumble by Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley (9) during the first half on Saturday.