Penn State Takes Step Forward
Penn State head coach James Franklin expected a response from his players after dodging an upset in its opener against Appalachian State.
He got one. Just a half later than he would have liked.
The Nittany Lions pummeled Pittsburgh 51-6 in the slop at Heinz Field on Saturday night, scoring the game’s final 45 points and pouring it on in the pouring rain. Still, Franklin found himself as focused on his team’s uneven first 29 minutes as he was on its dominant final 31.
“I’m pleased with where we’re at, but we’ve got to take another step,” Franklin said after beating the Panthers decisively for a second straight season. “We have to play better in the first half. Because depending on how things go, you might not be able to come back. You might not be able to recover.”
Penn State (2-0) recovered in time to post the third-largest margin by either team in a series that dates back 125 years. Still, the blowout seemed unlikely for most of the opening two quarters. Pitt (1-1) pushed the Nittany Lions around at times behind running back Qadree Ollison and only trailed thanks to a series of penalties, special teams gaffes and some curious playcalling.
Things turned late in the first half when the Nittany Lions stuffed Pitt on a fourth-and-3 at the Penn State 4 to preserve a one-point lead. Minutes later Pitt punter Kirk Christodoulou botched a snap, dropped the ball and the Nittany Lions recovered. It took three snaps for Trace McSorley hit KJ Hamler for a 14-yard score to put Penn State up 14-6.
Still, Franklin felt there should have been more. Miles Sanders ran for a career-high 118 yards in his return to his hometown but also had about 40 yards chopped off a long gain in the first half thanks to an illegal block behind the play. Sanders then had a 64-yard touchdown reception wiped out early in the second half when Juwan Johnson was called for offensive pass interference.
They’re the kind of miscues Franklin wants his team to avoid with Big Ten play looming later this month. The team he saw in the second half looked capable of competing for a conference title. The one in the first half? Not so much. It’s why he couldn’t get too excited even after his defense limited Pitt to just 69 yards in the second half.
“We shouldn’t need to make adjustments. We should be doing that from the beginning,” said Franklin, whose team hosts Kent State next week. “We played really good clutch defense in the first half. As the season goes on, we won’t be able to get away with that with some of our opponents.”
Still, the one-sidedness of the final two quarters was startling. The running room Ollison found while rolling up 125 yards in the first half vanished. He actually lost six yards in the second half and Pitt could muster little else. Quarterback Kenny Pickett was under siege for most of the night.
“We try to thrive on stopping the run and obviously we didn’t do as great a job in in the first half,” Penn State cornerback Amani Oruwariye said. “But we knew if we stop the run, make them one dimensional we can win the game and that’s what we tried to do in the second half.”
There were no such offensive issues for the Nittany Lions, though Franklin’s decision to have McSorley in the game and throwing with Penn State up by more than 30 in the fourth quarter raised some eyebrows. Franklin stressed he wasn’t running it up on Pitt so much as trying to impart a lesson after the Nittany Lions allowed Appalachian State to score 28 points over the final 13:39 of regulation to force overtime in the opener.
“We gave up a bunch of points in the fourth quarter last week and I wanted to make sure we were able to finish the way we should have,” Franklin said.
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi shrugged when asked if he felt the Nittany Lions were trying to prove a point, something that could carry over when they meet for the 100th time at Beaver Stadium next September.
“I coach Pitt football,” Narduzzi said after suffering his worst loss since taking over the Panthers in 2015. “I don’t coach for anybody else. That’s on them. You’ve got to sleep at night. It’s just where we are right now. We’ll have another shot. We’ve got another shot. It ain’t over.”