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WOGENRICH: Rewind on memorable Penn State-Pitt game

MARK WOGENRICH
(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)

PITTSBURGH — Rewinding the film on Penn State's 42-39 loss to Pitt.

Lots of good, plenty of bad and much left to ponder from a memorable game.

Running back Saquon Barkley has been named the MVP of the Penn State football team.

1. Trace McSorley is a gamer. Penn State's quarterback still has to tune some of essentials at his position (pocket movement, read-option timing with his backs), but he certainly doesn't cower from difficult spots.

McSorley has led two near-comebacks in his short time as the primary, helping rally Penn State from big deficits against Georgia and Pitt. On Saturday, he rebounded from two first-half fumbles and two sacks and a dropped deep ball in the fourth quarter to take a shot at the go-ahead touchdown.

And, given the green light, McSorley is going to take that shot. "We wanted to score and win the game outright and not have to go to overtime," he said.

McSorley added that, in hindsight, he might have considered a checkdown to get to third down and keep the offense on the field. But Penn State shouldn't want him to dull that edge — only learn how to corral when the situation merits.

2. The running back show. Penn State's Saquon Barkley and Pitt's James Conner hugged after the game, in which they crafted a show even better than anticipated. The two backs combined for 348 yards and seven touchdowns, then couldn't rave about each other enough.

Conner (game-high 117 yards rushing) averaged nearly 6 yards per attempt and spearheaded the power component of Pitt's game. His shovel-pass touchdown in the second half proved the game-winner.

Barkley, meanwhile, added a vital component to Penn State's offense that was lackluster last season: the red-zone finish. The Whitehall High graduate scored four red-zone touchdowns in different ways: power rush, stretch, pile dive. He also caught a 40-yard touchdown pass on a superbly conceived and executed play.

"He's a great running back," Conner said of Barkley. "He showed it today. I watch him on YouTube. I like him a lot."

Barkley said Conner called him "unbelievable" during their post-game talk and that the respect was mutual.

"That guy is a dog, a fighter," Barkley said of Conner, who was declared cancer-free in May after being diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma last year. "What he's been through, what he's still going through and the way he prevailed, not many people can do that. He's a leader for all the running backs in the country and all the young players in the country."

3. The defense? Pitt's run game tested Penn State's inexperienced line and depth concerns at linebacker, no doubt. Ultimately, though, the Lions often were out of position and missed tackles, especially in the first half.

One confusing point regarded Pitt's use of the sweeps. Penn State coach James Franklin last week made a point to note how much tape he had watched of those plays, including Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada's usage in previous jobs.

But after the game, some Penn State defensive players sounded surprised at Pitt's first-half offensive plan.

"That was tough," safety Malik Golden said of Pitt's 99-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter. "We really weren't expecting any of that. It was only their second game, and we didn't have too much film."

The Lions also missed five defensive starters at various points due to injuries, including linemen Evan Schwan and Kevin Givens and middle linebacker Jason Cabinda. The experience gap at those positions is difficult to manage with such injuries.

4. Chirpy coaches. Pitt's Pat Narduzzi joked last week that he and Franklin "don't vacation" together, which was evident in their recruiting barbs over the year. After the game, Franklin was irked at a pre-snap defensive strategy Narduzzi employed.

McSorley clapped at the line of scrimmage to call for the ball snap, a system teams used when crowd noise interferes with their voice calls. Problem was, Pitt's defense also clapped, which led to a snap miscue and false starts, Franklin said.

NCAA rules prohibit teams from using "words or signals that disconcert" opponents but don't mention clapping specifically. Franklin said game officials told him that clapping was legal. Narduzzi dismissed the issue.

"That's just an excuse," the Pitt coach said, adding that his defensive linemen clap as a means of communication.

COVER 3

Final thoughts from Penn State's 42-39 loss to Pitt.

1. Saquon Barkley aside, Penn State needs to extract more from its run game. When there's a line crush, the read-option has to be quicker. Look what Pitt's James Conner did with even a few holes.

2. A misplaced kickoff led to off-kilter coverage, resulting in Pitt's Quadree Henderson going 84 yards on the return, the defining play of the second half. A touchdown soon followed. The Lions needed a touchback at worst there.

3. Receiver DaeSean Hamilton, who has 137 career catches, said he would remember his fourth-quarter drop "forever." Hamilton's a great young player who, hopefully, turns that into a catalyst instead.