As he and his teammates packed up their things and got ready to leave Heinz Field after a thorough 51-6 beating of Pitt on Saturday night, Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley noticed a bittersweet vibe coming from his starting tailback.
Miles Sanders was thrilled with how things went in the game. He carried 16 times for 118 yards, recording his first 100-yard game with the Nittany Lions.
But he knew the Woodland Hills graduate was about to get on a bus and drive 140 miles away from some folks he really wanted to celebrate with.
“I think he was probably a little bit bummed that he had to get on the bus and go back to State College and not be able to go home to his house,” McSorley said, “but it was awesome to see Miles come out and have the game he had today.”
Sanders admitted his quarterback’s instincts were correct. He really would have liked to savor a home-cooked meal — his mom’s jerk chicken — before heading back to the middle of the state.
“That’s who I do it for. I do all this for my mom,” said Sanders, who estimated he had between 20 and 30 friends and family members in the stands. “She was real happy.”
Off to fast start replacing Barkley: In the grand scheme of things, though, missing a favorite meal was a minor complaint, especially considering how much Sanders got done between the lines Saturday night.
He made perhaps his loudest statement yet that he’s ready to step into the spotlight vacated by first-round draft pick Saquon Barkley.
Two games into his junior season, Sanders has 209 yards on 35 carries, which works out to a 5.97 yards per rush average that would make any ground game run smoothly.
“I come every game trying to prove something,” Sanders said. “I feel like I play every game with a chip on my shoulder. I was happy it paid off.”
Penalties hurt his numbers: Sanders’ numbers Saturday night could have been even more impressive if not for a pair of key penalty calls.
In the first quarter, on a first-and-10 from the Penn State 1, he took off on a 70-plus yard run that was turned into a 41-yard gain by a block-in-the-back call.
In the third quarter, Sanders caught a pass on the right sideline on a wheel play that Barkley used to great effect last season and streaked 64 yards to the end zone. It was called back because of an illegal pick.
“Obviously it’s frustrating, but at the end of the day, we got the ‘W’ and that’s all that counts,” Sanders said.
Heinz Field history: The “W” was indeed a big deal for Sanders, given his history on the home field of the Steelers.
The first time he played at Heinz Field, in the WPIAL finals as a sophomore in 2013, Woodland Hills lost to Central Catholic. The next time, as a true freshman at Penn State, he returned two kicks in a 42-39 Penn State loss to Pitt.
“It feels good to finally get a win out here,” Sanders said.
When the final horn sounded, Sanders basked for a little while in the emotion of the moment.
Downplays emotion: He was careful to downplay the emotion of the rivalry and give Pitt players credit for their effort, but he couldn’t help but notice the Panthers fans among the sellout crowd of 68,400 largely had cleared out to get dry.
“We just wanted to take over the stadium and get out of this stadium with a win because we knew it was a tough environment,” Sanders said. “It just felt like Penn State. All I heard was, ‘We are,’ at the end.”
He also basked in the decision he made years ago while an in-state recruiting battle for him raged.
“I think I made the perfect decision,” Sanders said. “I can’t go wrong with Penn State.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.