The Pitt football team put forth a pitiful effort in Saturday night’s 51-6 blowout loss to in-state rival Penn State, a game hyped up to be a “Keystone clash” between two fairly equal teams. Instead of rising to the occasion, the Panthers faded in the second half, allowing 37 unanswered points as most home fans filtered out of the stadium by the end of the third quarter.
By the end of the game, Pitt fans everywhere were left staring at the final score wondering just how it happened. It didn’t seem possible that the Panthers could suffer a loss so lopsided, at home, on national television, in front of a sellout crowd as Pitt greats Dan Marino and Tony Dorsett watched from nearby. But they did, and here are some of the biggest takeaways from Saturday’s game.
Special teams were a major issue
Kicking. Punting. Holding. Returning. Every aspect of special teams — you name it, the Panthers messed it up against Penn State.
First-year punter Kirk Christodoulou drew the ire of Pitt fans after making multiple errors throughout the evening. In his job as field goal holder, he mishandled the long snap on the extra point attempt following Pitt’s first touchdown, allowing Penn State to maintain its 7-6 lead.
Christodoulou again seemed to bobble the snap on a 35-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter, getting the ball down just in time for sophomore Alex Kessman’s kick, which sailed wide right. But his slippery hands really cost the Panthers just before halftime, when he dropped the snap during a punt attempt at the 35-yard line with just one minute remaining. That gave the Nittany Lions prime field position to score quickly, and they did just that to take a 14-6 lead.
Facing a crucial fourth-and-3 situation from the Penn State 4-yard line in the second quarter, it appeared head coach Pat Narduzzi officially lost hope in either Christodoulou’s ability to hold the ball or Kessman’s ability to kick it. He elected to go for the touchdown — and failed — instead of taking the easy field goal, which would have given Pitt a 9-6 lead.
When he was able to catch the snaps, Christodoulou still hurt the team with his inability to punt the ball deep. The Pitt offense often found itself pinned within its own 5-yard line — largely thanks to Christodoulou’s short punts, which averaged just 33.7 yards on the night. It may have been cold and rainy, but 33.7 yards just doesn’t cut it for a Division I punter.
Those punts gave the Penn State offense a short field to work with all night, and for all the efforts of the Pitt defense, it’s simply too easy to score when your team only needs to drive 40 yards. The Panthers’ entire punt unit also deserves some blame for allowing senior DeAndre Thompkins to take a punt return 39 yards back for a touchdown in the third quarter.
The Panthers couldn’t stop committing penalties
Penn State committed four penalties for 45 yards. Pitt committed 14 for 116 yards.
“I’ve never seen so many penalties in one game,” Narduzzi — who has been coaching football since 1990 — said afterwards.
It wasn’t just the sheer mass of penalties that hurt the Panthers, but the critical times when they came. Early in the third quarter, trailing just 14-6, Pitt stuffed Penn State on a third-and-10 attempt at their own 27-yard line, forcing what would have likely been a punt. But redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Patrick Jones II was flagged for roughing the passer — a 15-yard penalty, giving Penn State the ball at the 11-yard line. Quarterback Trace McSorley punched it in three plays later, giving the Nittany Lions a 21-6 lead.
Pitt senior Colin Jonov was flagged for an illegal block on the ensuing kick return, marching the ball back to Pitt’s own 8-yard line. A first-down false start on sophomore tight end Tyler Sear backed it up to the 4. On second down, Pickett rolled out and threw an incomplete pass — but senior lineman Stefano Millin was flagged for holding in the end zone, awarding Penn State a two-point safety to go up 23-6.
Those two possessions alone provided a nine-point swing — and an immeasurable momentum change — in Penn State’s favor, and it was the sole result of self-inflicted errors from the Panthers. That was the point when the Panther Pitt began to empty out of the stadium.
Pickett isn’t immortal after all
Up to this point in his career, sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett had done nothing to derail his steadily growing hype train.
As a true freshman last season, Pickett impressed in his first significant action at Virginia Tech, taking over for Ben DiNucci and completing 15 of 23 passes for an admirable 242 yards, despite an interception. He earned his first start the following week against unbeaten No. 2 Miami — and proceeded to score all three Panther touchdowns in the massive upset.
Last week against Albany, Pickett did everything you’d expect against a weaker FCS opponent. He completed 16 of 22 passes — including a perfect 13 for 13 in the first half — and accounted for three more touchdowns.
But the Pickett hype train came crashing to a halt against Penn State Saturday night.
Pickett couldn’t get anything going against the Nittany Lions’ defense, often choosing to run when faced with pressure. He completed one of his five first-quarter passes, and that lone completion went for zero yards. When Pickett finally mustered the courage to take a deep shot at the end zone, it resulted in a Penn State interception toward the end of the first quarter.
The coaching staff seemed to lose confidence in their star quarterback after that, and instead chose to run the entire offense through senior running back Qadree Ollison, who amassed 119 yards on 21 carries. Pickett finished the game with nine completions — on just 18 attempts — for 55 yards and an interception.
The all-encompassing stat of the night may have been that Pitt had over twice as many penalty yards, 114, as passing yards, 55.
James Franklin is not here to play nice
With Penn State leading 51-6 in front of a near-empty stadium with one minute left in the game — the textbook definition of “junk time” — first-year running back Ricky Slade fumbled the ball. Pitt sophomore defensive lineman Rashad Weaver picked up the fumble and returned it 20 yards to the Penn State 43-yard line.
However, Nittany Lions’ head coach James Franklin surprised everyone by challenging the ruling of the fumble. The decision seemed puzzling, considering the outcome wouldn’t help his team win the game — they were already up 51-6. All it did was make any fans still in attendance wait around in the cold rain a few minutes longer.
To Pitt fans, Franklin’s challenge came across as a classless, in-your-face taunt. Penn State fans lauded the move for stepping on the the throat of their rival. After review, the ruling on the field was upheld as a fumble.
Call it petty, call it all-business or whatever you may. With this late-game antic, Franklin showed that he’s not afraid to make a bold and controversial statement — similar to comparing Pitt to Akron in 2017 — and likely provided a media talking point for next year’s matchup.
It’s not the end of the world
However ugly it may have been, this loss won’t count against what matters most — Pitt’s conference record. The Panthers will look to put this showing in the past when they host their first ACC game against Georgia Tech Saturday.
“I was telling the guys that all our dreams and goals are still intact,” Ollison said afterwards. “Nobody will complain if we win out and go 11-1. 11-1 isn’t bad either.”