Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: Five thoughts on Penn State 51, Pitt 6
Nothing could rain on the 99 th meeting between Pitt and Penn State, one of the oldest rivalries in college football.
Except for, well, rain.
A steady downpour drenched the Panthers and Nittany Lions and the sellout crowd of 68,400, turning Heinz Field into a slippery surface and the game into a slippery slope of costly mishaps for both teams.
But they cost Pitt more. Much more.
1. Coin-flip flap: Before the game even started, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi was upset about his captains winning the coin toss and electing to receive instead of deferring to the second half.
It appeared to backfire when the Panthers went three-and-out, with a 32-yard punt to the Penn State 37. After a 22-yard pass to tight end Jonathan Holland, Pitt drew a 10-yard holding penalty that set up KJ Hamler’s 32-yard scoring run for a 7-0 lead.
But Penn State could have made Pitt pay for the coin-toss confusion to start the third quarter, but the Nittany Lions had a Miles Sanders 64-yard touchdown catch nullified by an offensive pass interference penalty when receiver Juwan Johnson set an illegal pick on a Pitt defender.
2. Blunder from Down Under: Pitt punter Kirk Christodoulou didn’t grow up with the Pitt-Penn State rivalry but became an infamous part of its lore.
The redshirt freshman from Melbourne, Australia, had a handful of gaffes that cost the Panthers points.
Qadree Ollison scored on a 13-yard run, giving Pitt a chance to tie the game at 7:09 of the first quarter. But Christodoulou, holding place kicks for the first time in place of backup kicker Jake Scarton, couldn’t handle the snap on the point-after kick. Christodoulou tried to run, but was tackled short of the goal line and Penn State maintained a 7-6 lead.
There was another botched hold on a 35-yard field-goal attempt in the second quarter, and Kessman’s kick sailed wide right and cost Pitt a chance to take the lead.
On its next offensive series, Pitt had a fourth-and-3 at the Penn State 4. After a timeout, the Panthers elected to go for it instead of kicking a 21-yard chip shot.
Ollison was promptly dropped for a 3-yard loss.
3. Nothing special: Pitt’s special teams only got worse from there.
Christodoulou dropped the snap on a punt late in the half, was hit by linebacker Micah Parsons and fumbled the ball at the Pitt 35. Three plays later, Trace McSorley hit Hamler on a 14-yard touchdown pass to give Penn State.
That was the turning point of the game. Instead of taking a potential 13-7 lead into the half, Pitt trailed Penn State, 14-6.
In the third quarter, Rafael Araujo-Lopes muffed a punt return before recovering at Pitt’s 3. Three plays later, Christodoulou was put in a tough spot when forced to punt out of the end zone. He hit a 32-yard line drive to DeAndre Thompkins, who went left and ran past Christodoulou for a touchdown and 30-6 lead.
4. Back to back: Both Ollison and Miles Sanders spent parts of their careers in the shadow of an All-American running back, Ollison behind James Conner and Sanders behind Saquon Barkley, but were the stars of this show.
Ollison was the ACC offensive rookie of the year as a freshman, when Conner was lost to a season-ending knee injury. Despite a 96-yard game at Penn State last season, Ollison had been reduced to a backup role behind Conner in ’16 and Darrin Hall last year.
But Ollison rushed for 125 yards on 17 carries in the first half, including a 63-yard run and the 13-yard touchdown. He had negative yardage in the second half to finish with 119 yards on 21 carries, marking his first 100-yard game since 2o15, when he ran for 152 yards against Louisville.
An All-American at Woodland Hills who waited for his starting turn behind Barkley, the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft, Sanders showed his ability as a dual-threat back.
Through the first three quarters, Sanders ran for 104 yards on 14 carries and had a 6-yard catch, although he also had a 64-yard catch for a touchdown negated by penalty. The 5-foot-11, 215-pound junior finished with 118 yards on 16 carries for his first career 100-yard game.
Both backs showed that they could break big plays but also power through tacklers for tough yards.
5. Pickett’s Charge: Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett saw his perfect record as a starter fall apart after impressive performances in the 2017 finale against Miami and the ’18 opener against Albany.
After three quarters against an ordinary Penn State defense, Pickett had more yards rushing (39) than passing (30) and more interceptions (one) than touchdowns (none).
Pickett was 1 of 5 passing with an interception in the first quarter, 4 of 8 for 17 yards by halftime and 6 of 11 for 30 yards by the end of the third quarter.
But it wasn’t really his fault.
Pickett was forced to scramble from the start, as his receivers created little separation and struggled to get open. Through the first three quarters, no Pitt receiver had more than one catch and none went longer than 9 yards. McSorley, by contrast, was 14 of 30 for 145 yards passing and two touchdowns.
But without Pickett playing like Kenny Perfect, the Panthers had no chance of a comeback.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.