So here’s a question: Had Pitt converted that floating prayer as time expired (and without the holding penalty on its offensive line), would coach Pat Narduzzi have gone for two and the victory?
Penn State didn’t have to consider it after linebacker Cam Brown and his 35-inch vertical jump batted down Kenny Pickett’s pass, sealing a 17-10 victory that everyone on the Penn State sideline called “gritty.” But it’s a ‘What if?’ that lingers in the memory of a memorable series finale.
The Lions played fierce defense to end the game, ran the ball with grit (via freshman back Noah Cain) on its go-ahead drive and absorbed hit after painful hit from the gritty Panthers. As the last game between the programs for a while, it was better than expected and left a lot to be desired.
But back to Narduzzi. The Pitt coach, known to spin the roulette wheel at times, decided to attempt a 19-yard field goal with 4:54 remaining instead of taking one more shot at the end zone. The kick, low and left, hit a post, caromed into the end zone and left a bruise on Pitt’s sideline.
Penn State was, well, perplexed. Linebacker Jan Johnson said he fully expected Pitt to fake the field goal. Fellow linebacker Cam Brown smiled and said, “the way it turned out was great.” And sophomore linebacker Micah Parsons spoke for every Pitt fan wanting Narduzzi to stay with his offense.
“I think it’s always a great opportunity to take a chance, you know? You have nothing to lose,” said Parsons, who led Penn State with nine tackles. “If you don’t get it on the 1, we’re backed up. Different thoughts from different people.”
Narduzzi defended the decision several times, calling it a two-possession game to win. Pitt ran nowhere all day (25 carries, 24 yards), and Penn State safety Garrett Taylor stood up Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett on second down.
Pickett, who set career-highs in completions (36), attempts (51) and yards (372), had two open receivers on third down. But Brown, who batted down the end-zone throw, blitzed Pickett into a desperately rushed throw. Frayed by that point, Narduzzi made his decision.
“I want to play to win the football game, and it’s a two-possession game," Narduzzi said of Penn State’s 7-point lead. “You have to score twice to win the football game, and you know I don’t question that decision, really.”
PSU questions: Meanwhile, Penn State has plenty to question. The Lions (3-0) head to Big Ten play wondering how to stop third-and-long passes, how their running-back rotation is working and why their 4-minute offense still lacks a game-ending punch. Also, what becomes of their offense if they can’t convert those deep throws?
But they also head to Maryland having allowed four touchdowns in three games, having allowed just 10 combined points in three second halves and having produced nine plays of 35 yards or longer.
So, yeah, all things considered, the Lions were happy — particularly on a day when Maryland lost to Temple, Michigan State lost to Arizona State and Illinois lost to Eastern Michigan.
And particularly considering how Pitt came at them physically.
“Guys are feeling it,” Brown said. “In the locker some guys are dancing around, some guys are feeling it. We know we’re banged up a little bit, but we’re going to get right.”
Yes, Penn State’s defense struggles to get off the field: Pitt converted five 3rd-and-10s or longer and went 3-for-3 on fourth down. But Pitt’s three longest drives (of 18, 10 and 10 plays) produced only 3 points. One of those ended with the missed field goal.
Yes, the defensive line labored to get pressure on Pickett (as Pitt protected him with extra blockers) in the first half and really labored to cover receiver Taysir Mack (12 catches, 125 yards). But it also flustered Pickett in the most important red-zone moments and made three second-half sacks.
Clifford had difficult day: And yes, quarterback Sean Clifford had a difficult day (14-for-30, 222 yards, no touchdowns, 3 sacks) and took responsibility for missing several deep throws to KJ Hamler and Jahan Dotson. But he also guided a 13-play scoring drive in the third quarter that ended with the eventual game-winning touchdown.
“You’ve just got to lean on the rest of your team,” Clifford said. “We left a lot of shots out there. That’s on me. I take that ownership. But it’s a team game. The defense made plays, the running backs made plays and the offensive line played great.”
Penn State won this latest four-year series against Pitt 3-1, which coach James Franklin and his players called satisfying. The series was bookended by two hugely entertaining games (begun by Pitt’s 42-39 win at Heinz Field in 2016) and ends again with sighs of frustration and relief.
“Awesome,” Franklin said. “Awesome being 1-0. I thought the four-game series was great. Very competitive. … We’re happy to be 3-1 in the series. We’re happy to be 1-0.”