McGONIGAL: Analyzing the good, the bad and the ugly of Penn State's 51-6 win over Pitt

Centre Daily Times (TNS)
  • Penn State earned a 51-6 victory over Pitt on Saturday night at Heinz Field.
  • K.J. Hamler has been one of the Nittany Lions' breakout standouts so this season.
  • Hamler tallied 156 all-purpose yards against the Panthers.

Penn State might have another Derrick Williams on its hands.

KJ Hamler — after bringing life to a listless Penn State crowd last weekend against Appalachian State — helped crush hearts at Heinz Field on Saturday night. In Penn State’s 51-6 win, Hamler tallied 145 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns on seven touches. His 32-yard jet sweep capped the Nittany Lions’ first drive, and a 14-yard scoring snag gave Penn State momentum entering halftime.

Penn State wide receiver KJ Hamler (1) runs through a tackle-attempt by Pittsburgh defensive back Damar Hamlin (3) en route to a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Against the Panthers, Hamler became the first Penn State wideout to record a receiving and rushing touchdown in a single game since Williams — an electrifying, multi-faceted speedster who tore it up for the Nittany Lions from 2005 to 2008. Williams, slightly undersized like Hamler, contributed right away as a freshman and racked up 4,156 all-purpose yards in four years.

Obviously it’s early for Hamler. The redshirt freshman has played in two games. But the comparisons are too juicy. Williams didn’t reach three offensive touchdowns until Week 6 of his freshman year. It took Hamler six quarters to do it.

Hamler may not turn out to be the star Williams grew into. But he’s off to an awfully good start.

“He’s not thinking. He’s playing, and he’s having fun,” Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley said. “He’s an electric player.”

Here's the good, the bad and the ugly from PSU's win over Pitt.

Good: Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi wasn’t pleased with Penn State’s final touchdown, a 34-yard connection with four minutes left in a blowout.

Narduzzi, directed at James Franklin and the Nittany Lions, said, “You’ve got to sleep at night.”

Well, I’m sure third-string quarterback Sean Clifford slept like a baby on Saturday. The redshirt freshman — who spelled McSorley with Tommy Stevens still being held out with an apparent injury — dropped a dime on his first career pass. Clifford led Brandon Polk perfectly behind two Pitt defenders for the score.

Clifford went nuts, and he deserved to celebrate. The earliest he’ll likely start is in 2020 when Stevens moves on, but that throw alone should give Nittany Lion fans confidence for the future.

As expected, Kevin Givens’ return was significant. The redshirt junior defensive tackle, who was suspended for last weekend’s upset scare, tied Micah Parsons for a team-leading seven tackles.

Givens ripped Pitt running back Qadree Ollison down for a loss twice; on the latter TFL, the Altoona native blew through Pitt’s offensive line and mauled the rusher. Givens is probably the most athletic player on that defensive line, and it showed.

For the second week in a row, fifth-year senior DeAndre Thompkins was held without a catch (more on that later). But the wideout returned a Pitt punt 39 yards to the house for his second career return touchdown.

The self-proclaimed fastest man in the program, Thompkins dusted the Panther punt team with ease. The score put Penn State up 30-6 with 28 seconds to go in the third quarter, starting the exodus of Pitt fans from Heinz Field.

With Pitt pinned back at its own 4-yard line early in the second quarter, Ollison shot out of a cannon untouched up Penn State’s sideline. He had nothing but green in front of him. But cornerback Zech McPhearson — who was up at the line of scrimmage when Ollison hit the second level — chased the running back and forced him out of bounds at the Penn State 33-yard line.

The Nittany Lion defense held Pitt to a field goal attempt, which it missed. If Ollison scores, Pitt owns an early touchdown lead — and the complexion of the game changes. But McPhearson, in Franklin’s words, “makes a huge play.” “Those are the plays that really you could build on,” the coach added.

Bad: While he traveled with the team and suited up, John Reid did not appear against Pitt. That’s not a good sign.

The regular starter — who is returning from a knee injury that ended his 2017 season before it began — was absent in the fourth quarter and overtime against App State. Tariq Castro-Fields took his place opposite Oruwariye.

Franklin said on Tuesday that the corner looked like a guy who hadn’t played football for a year. Whether it was that “inconsistent” performance or an ongoing injury that kept Reid out of the secondary, we’re not sure. Franklin wasn’t asked about Reid’s absence after the game. But surely it will be brought up at his weekly press conference.

Instead of riding Sanders — who averaged 7.4 yards per carry Saturday night — true freshman Ricky Slade was inserted into a 7-6 game in the second quarter and fumbled.

The Penn State defense bailed him out, stopping Pitt on fourth-and-3 from the Nittany Lion 4-yard line. If Sanders picked up a mid-game knock, Slade’s appearance makes more sense. Otherwise, it’s another puzzling move.

Penn State stuck to a running back rotation in the first half against App State, getting Mark Allen touches at the expense of Sanders, and it didn’t work out well then, either. Something to keep an eye on moving toward Big Ten play.

Ugly: Drops marred the Nittany Lions yet again.

Clinging to a 14-6 lead in the third quarter, McSorley found Thompkins open in the back of the end zone — but the pass slipped right through his hands. On the next play, Juwan Johnson dropped an easy first-down out route. Luckily for Penn State, a third-down roughing the passer extended the drive, and the Nittany Lions later scored.

But Thompkins, who is fighting for time with Polk, didn’t help his case. And Johnson, who had at least two drops last weekend, has not looked crisp in these first couple of games. Johnson has first-round NFL talent, especially after the catch, but he isn’t giving himself a chance to showcase it.

When asked about allowing 214 rushing yards to Pitt in the first half, Penn State defensive end Shareef Miller brushed it off as the front-seven simply not being gap sound. To the unit’s credit, that was fixed at halftime. But why couldn’t that have been addressed sooner?

Franklin said after the game that a defensive first half like that can’t happen against other teams later in the year. Imagine giving those running lanes to Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan or even Iowa for two quarters. Gap integrity is something Penn State’s front-seven needs to seriously improve.