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GORMAN: No matter what Penn State folks say, Pitt rivalry still matters

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (TNS)
  • Penn State beat in-state rival Pitt on Saturday afternoon, 33-14.
  • Pitt had the edge in the major statistical categories, but trailed throughout the game.
  • The game was played in front of nearly 110,000 fans at Beaver Stadium.

Saquon Barkley saw Pitt was in single coverage and the ball was in the air, headed his way.

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley (26) dives into the end zone for a touchdown as Pittsburgh's Dennis Briggs defends during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa. Penn State won, 33-14.

That gave Penn State's All-America running back time to think about where he was wanted to go and what it would mean to the 98th edition of one of college football's oldest and greatest rivalries.

“You have to make sure you come down with it and find a way to get into the end zone and get extra motivation for your team,” Barkley said.

“That's the mindset you have to have. You have to believe in yourself. I thought it was a touchdown once I saw I had a one-on-one route.”

Barkley turned that third-quarter pass from Trace McSorley into a 46-yard touchdown and added a back-breaking 8-yard run in the fourth as the No. 4 Nittany Lions beat Pitt, 33-14, Saturday before 109,898 at Beaver Stadium.

Barkley wasn't just the best player on the field — he had 183 total yards, with 88 rushing, 45 receiving and 50 on kickoff returns — but did more than anyone to dictate the outcome.

Essentially, Barkley did what the Panthers couldn't: He made a momentum-changing play and finished a long drive by scoring in the red zone.

“That's just the nature of the game, explosive plays like that,” Barkley said. “When you get momentum, when you get it going and get it rolling, it kind of stops the defense from what they're trying to do and changes their game plan.”

Barkley, Franklin have same outlook: Barkley only added insult by echoing Penn State coach James Franklin's post-game assertion that where Pitt treated its 42-39 win last year at Heinz Field like it had won the Super Bowl, the Lions likened it to beating Akron last week — that every game is a Super Bowl.

“It didn't really matter. It felt like a normal win to me,” Barkley said. “No game is bigger than another. I know it sounds cliche, and I know you guys are probably sick and tired of hearing it, but we believe in it. That's our attitude. We treat every game like it's the Super Bowl. There was no extra, ‘Oh yeah, we won! We beat Pitt!'

“They were just the team on our schedule at the time as an opponent. Whoever our opponent is, we expect to win.”

The game matters — a lot: Never mind that Penn State failed to cover the three-touchdown point spread. This rivalry game drew not just statewide but national interest, along with the seventh-largest crowd in Beaver Stadium history.

So, Penn State can say what it wants. The game matters. The opponent matters. The result matters, and not just because the Lions are now 2-0 instead of 1-1. A loss to Pitt would have been the third consecutive for Penn State in this series, and a home loss would have been a bad look.

Lions' stars excel: But Penn State prevailed, largely because its best players looked like All-Americans while Pitt's star shrunk in the spotlight.

Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki caught two touchdown passes to spot the Lions a 14-0 first-quarter lead, and Barkley scored two touchdowns in the second half to seal the victory.

Meantime, Pitt receiver/return specialist Quadree Henderson spent most of the game running in the wrong direction. He finished with 33 yards on nine touches, including minus-5 rushing and zero yards on three punt returns.

Henderson, however, is hardly a scapegoat. But his lack of production put the Panthers in poor field position in the first half, making two turnovers even more costly.

Pitt has statistical edge: Pitt's offense had the advantage over Penn State in rushing (155-148), passing (187-164) and total yards (342-312), first downs (24-14) and held a 16-minute edge in time of possession.

The notion the Panthers saved their tricks for Penn State — my take on Pitt's 28-21 overtime victory over Youngstown State in the opener — was largely disproven, unless you consider the shovel pass a specialty.

If the Penn State loss exposed anything, it's that Pitt has a problem with either its play-calling or signal caller. Max Browne struggled, throwing two interceptions and overshooting receivers on downfield throws.

Pitt struggles in red zone: The Panthers didn't just give up big plays to Penn State, they struggled once again in the red zone.

Pitt scored only one touchdown on its four first-and-goals — and that was with backup Ben DiNucci running for a touchdown after replacing Browne on a third-and-goal at the 3 — as it twice settled for field goals and lost a fumble in the final minute.

Penn State answered with Barkley, who scored five touchdowns against Pitt last year and showed why he's one of the nation's best backs by breaking tackles and bulldozing defenders at the goal line.

“Once you think he's down,” Pitt defensive end DeWayne Hendrix warned, “don't think he's down.”

Pitt strong safety Dennis Briggs, dragged into the end zone by Barkley, compared him to James Conner.

“We tried our best,” Briggs said. “Came downhill, tried not to slow down. Sometimes we got him, sometimes we didn't.”

McSorley called Barkley's two big plays “huge confidence boosters” for Penn State's offense, touchdowns that got the Lions their “mojo” back.

Those plays were the difference in this week's Super Bowl, a Pitt-Penn State rivalry game that matters more than even the winners will admit.