In most blowout losses, like the one Penn State dealt Pitt at Heinz Field Saturday night, it is impossible to pin the blame on any one call by the referees or missed opportunity by the losing team.
Instead, it is a culmination of mistakes, bad luck and poor execution that leads to a tragedy as great as Pitt’s 51-6 loss to PSU.
This was the case with Saturday’s game, where issues such as Pitt’s failure to capitalize on scoring chances, its one-dimensional commitment to the run game and the monsoon-like weather conditions all contributed to the Panthers’ brutal loss. Pitt was held to 55 passing yards and only six points — despite having 300 total yards to Penn State’s 390 — all while holding the ball for 10 more minutes. Even worse were the 14 penalties Pitt committed that cost 116 potential yards. While these mistakes don’t make up the full story, they all played a part in the ugly finish.
Against an upper-tier FBS school like Penn State, it is crucial to get a fast start. Its players are the top recruits in the nation coming out of high school and, as such, are bigger, stronger and faster than those of a team like Pitt. Of ESPN’s Top 300 recruiting class, Penn State had 13 players in 2018. The Panthers didn’t even have one.
This is why a fast start is so important. Teams like the Panthers, no matter how talented or well-conditioned they are, get tired — especially in the rainy, muddy conditions present on Saturday night. The rivalry between Pitt’s coach, Pat Narduzzi, and the Nittany Lions’, James Franklin, has been apparent since the series began in 2016. And once the Panthers’ defense was worn down, Franklin had no qualms about embarrassing them as much as possible, running up the already ugly score.
To begin the game, the Panthers did a good job of dominating the time of possession, which tired out the Nittany Lions’ front. However, they couldn’t convert their possessions into points — the missed extra point, Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett’s red-zone interception at the end of the first quarter, the missed field goal after a strong drive and the turnover on downs at the four-yard line all occured in the first 29 minutes of the game, when Pitt held its arch-rival to just seven points.
By punching it into the end zone or cashing in on those missed kicks, the Panthers could have put heavy pressure on the Nittany Lions, forcing them to attempt to catch up in the second half rather than coast. The extra point and three other scoring chances wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the 45-point loss, but they could have at least kept the crowd for the duration of the game.
It was clear from the opening kickoff that weather would have a big impact on the game, as Penn State’s kickoff almost flew out of bounds. Throughout the game, wind indicators on the goalposts showed the erratic weather patterns, as the breeze switched directions frequently, evidently throwing off the teams. Combined, the two teams lost four fumbles and missed three kicks. And Pickett threw a rain-slicked interception on a pass he couldn’t quite get right.
Although the home crowd was fresh, fired up and rocking with towels twirling at the start of the game, the bad weather and the quality of play let the air out of the stadium quickly. With each turnover or failed conversion, the crowd lost more and more momentum, culminating with Kirk Christodoulou’s mishandled snap at the end of the first half. Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley threw a touchdown three plays later, and Panther fans began to filter out of the stadium, tired, drenched and demoralized.
Considering at the start of the game Pitt had won the coin toss, it seems that the team perhaps sensed the energy of an electric crowd, leading the Panthers captains electing to start the game on offense rather than defer, as Coach Narduzzi later told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Knowing that the Nittany Lions were set to get the ball back at the start of the second half, soaked fans began to leave en masse during the seemingly long halftime presentation. The game would have had to be otherworldly at that point to keep the fans invested, especially in the dreary weather. By the fourth quarter, it seemed like only about a thousand fans and the band remained, and the once-deafening roar that had thrown off Penn State’s rhythm in the first half had evaporated.
The NIttany Lions were able to run their offense without a hitch, putting their foot on the gas and icing the game away with 37 second-half points, 21 of which came in the final quarter. The issue lay not only in the amount of times that the Nittany Lions scored, but also the deflating manner in which they scored their points. Safeties, punt-return touchdowns and long-passing plays put the game away comfortably, and the Panthers couldn’t keep up with the onslaught or even score at all due to their one-dimensional approach.
The Panthers’ overcommitment to the run game had a big part in the loss. While sloppy field conditions made players and coaches alike prepare for an in-the-trenches throwback of a matchup, a balanced offense is key against a talented defense. Once the Nittany Lions realized that Pitt had no intentions of throwing the ball, they were free to stack the tackle box at will, sending more defenders underneath to take away Pickett’s ability to scramble and extend plays, a chief reason for his success against Miami and Albany.
Penn State’s front seven also swallowed up Qadree Ollison who, after gaining 63 yards on one play early in the second quarter, was completely bottled up. The questionable decision to run the ball on fourth-and-three at the four-yard line was made even worse by the fact that the play was telegraphed from before the Panthers broke huddle — they had completed just three passes in the previous 25 minutes of play.
Credit is due to the Nittany Lions’ defense, especially the secondary, but Pickett never even had a chance to get in rhythm. Rather than open up with some quick, high-percentage passes such as drag routes and quick outs that would get the quarterback and receivers on the same page and feeling confident, Pickett only dropped back to pass in situations where he had to, still attempting to scramble as if there was even a prayer of a conversion.
Once the game was completely out of hand, the Panthers threw the game away by continuing to run the ball, going three-and-out four times in the second half alone. Penn State, on the other hand, had no intentions of letting Pitt off lightly, running up the score as much as they could, even with backups in the game.
Against the Nittany Lions, the Panthers doomed themselves with turnovers, blown opportunities and a lack of anything resembling a passing game. But they won’t have time to stew in their mistakes, considering that they host a talented Georgia Tech team Saturday. As they begin conference play this week, the Panthers can’t afford to bumble against the Yellow Jackets’ disciplined triple-option attack.