Just like Pitt did last year at home, the Nittany Lions jumped out to an early lead, but the Panthers couldn’t catch up — eventually falling 33-14 during Saturday’s rivalry football game.
Despite piling up more yards than the Nittany Lions (2-0) at Beaver Stadium, Penn State’s red zone defense stifled the Panthers (1-1). Penn State stopped Pitt inside the 20-yard line three times on the day, forcing them to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns.
“They were better than we were today,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “We have to go back and get to the fundamentals. We have to protect the quarterback, we can’t turn the ball over. I mean, you’re not going to beat a top-10 team [if you do that].”
The Nittany Lions kicked off to begin the game, but they quickly gained possession after intercepting redshirt senior quarterback Max Browne on his second pass of the day.
“That first drive, it was a big mistake by me,” Browne said. “That doesn’t help anything at all. That doesn’t help our offense or defense.”
Penn State took over at Pitt’s 8-yard line and scored on their first play — a pass to senior tight end Mike Gesicki — to take a 7-0 lead just 2:07 into the game.
After back-to-back punts, the Panthers took over at their own 9-yard line. On second down from the 16, Browne fired downfield, connecting with redshirt junior wide receiver Rafael Araujo-Lopes to move to the 38. The drive stalled, though, forcing the Panthers to bring on redshirt senior punter Ryan Winslow.
Facing a third down near midfield, Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley found a hole in the Panthers’ defense and ran all the way to their 18. Three plays later, Gesicki scored with his second touchdown pass of the day, putting his team up 14-0.
Browne and the Panthers had some success on their next possession, but the unit came up empty, punting it back and giving the Nittany Lions the ball at their own 11.
After Penn State punted back, Pitt had the ball inside their own 20. Again, Browne overthrew, resulting in his second interception of the game at the Penn State 41.
The Panther defense forced another punt with a third-down sack by redshirt junior defensive lineman Dewayne Hendrix, taking over at Pitt’s 13. Even though the Panthers moved down the field, they didn’t get into the end zone and brought redshirt freshman Alex Kessman in to kick a field goal with 1:12 to go. The half ended with the score at 14-3.
The second half opened with Penn State at its 25 and quickly moved past midfield on consecutive runs by junior running back Saquon Barkley. Even though Pitt’s defense forced a punt, its offense couldn’t move the ball and Penn State regained possession.
This time, Barkley caught a pass after beating redshirt sophomore linebacker Saleem Brightwell, making the score 21-3 with 10:32 left in the quarter.
On the next possession, redshirt junior running back Qadree Ollison took a handoff on the right side and broke down the field to the Nittany Lions’ 21. But the Penn State defense held the Panthers again, forcing another field goal from Kessman to make it 21-6.
Following back-to-back punts, the Nittany Lions took possession at their own 22. After Barkley ran the ball to the 30, the Nittany Lions looked as if they were going to secure the game heading into the fourth quarter.
Barkley punched it in on the first play of the quarter, scoring from eight yards out to give his team a commanding 28-6 lead.
Needing a score to stay in the game, Browne and the Panthers took over at their 25-yard line. On the third play of the drive, Ollison caught a shovel pass from Browne and got all the way down to the Penn State 33.
Another shovel pass put the Panthers in the red zone, and this time, the offense converted on a 3-yard run by redshirt sophomore backup quarterback Ben DiNucci. DiNucci entered the game after Browne sustained a minor injury on the previous play.
The Panthers cut Penn State’s lead to 28-14 after a two-point conversion with 10:09 to go.
“[DiNucci] gives us a spark because he can run,” Narduzzi said. “I told you, he’s a good quarterback too, and I think we can win games with him. It was good to get him some action out there.”
Penn State faced a third and three on Pitt’s 48-yard line with just over seven minutes left. The Panthers made the stop, and the Nittany Lions opted to punt, pinning Pitt at its own 4.
On second down, the Panthers threw a screen pass to the right sideline, but senior safety Marcus Allen made the tackle in Pitt’s end zone for a safety. The Nittany Lions got the ball back with 5:53 on the clock, up 30-14.
McSorley again led the offense, moving inside Pitt’s 20 on a 19-yard pass to Gesicki. The Nittany Lions were set on a field goal, but senior kicker Tyler Davis converted and extended the lead to 33-14.
With DiNucci back in, the Pitt offense moved down the field as the clock wound down. Inside the Nittany Lions’ 30, DiNucci hit redshirt senior wide receiver Jester Weah along the right sideline for 21 yards down to the 7. The Panthers again couldn’t convert, stopped on fourth down from the 8-yard line. Penn State ran out the clock, winning convincingly, 33-14.
The Panthers return home next week looking to respond against No. 9 Oklahoma State. Kickoff is set for noon at Heinz Field.
“Of course this hurts, but we’re on to the next week,” senior defensive back Avonte Maddox said. “We still have a chance to win the ACC Championship and that’s our goal.”