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Pitt wins thrilling 42-39 contest over Penn State

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In the words of amped-up former Pitt coach Walt Harris: “It’s a rivalry again!”

Despite some confusion of what exactly we are supposed to call this Pitt-Penn State matchup, Saturday’s game could be unanimously tabbed an edge-of-seat thriller, as the Panthers notched a 42-39 lead in front of a record-breaking packed house at Heinz Field Saturday afternoon.

Escaping a three touchdown deficit, Penn State rallied behind star running back Saquon Barkley, and the grit of quarterback Trace McSorley to pull within three points with the ball late in the game.

“We knew it was going to be a four-quarter game,” said Penn State head Coach James Franklin.  “I thought whoever had the lead, no matter what the situation was, that this was one of those games that was going to come down to the wire.”

After completing a nearly implausible 34-yard pass to DeAndre Thompkins on a 4th and 16 play with just under two minutes left—and Franklin’s premonition coming to fruition—McSorley halted all momentum, making what was maybe the only mistake of his day, tossing an interception in the back of the end zone to Ryan Lewis just two plays later. The turnover ended the threat and handed the Panthers the final nail they needed.

“I was a little surprised he threw that,” said Lewis who came up with the heroic pick that ended the game.  “We played back on them a little bit and I had a good position to getting to that ball, and it was big.  It ended the game.”

The Panthers defense—specifically the interior linemen—put together a clinic on pass rush, disrupting the passing game, and sacking McSorley four times, including a devastating hit from Ejuan Price that forced a fumble picked up by Mike Caprara at the PSU 12-yard line, just one play into a drive that followed a Panthers score.

Two plays later Nate Peterman found Quadree Henderson for a 7-yard score that gave Pitt 14-0 advantage just five minutes into the game.

The PSU fumble was one of four total turnovers forced on the day.

“We got off to a fast start,” said Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi.  “Last week wasn’t our real offense.  This is our offense.  Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks Coach Matt Canada had 350 plays on his wristband today.  I give credit to coach Canada for calling great plays.  It was a fast start with great coaching and execution.”

Feeding well off the momentum given by the defense early, Pitt’s offense stacked up an absolutely dominating 341 rushing yards, used an elixir of jet sweeps, shovel passes and old fashioned follow the center and guards to pay dirt to open up a dominating 28-7 in the second quarter. 

A 3-yard jet sweep to George Aston—his second score of the half on the same play—capped a 3-play, 30-yard drive that gave Pitt its final score in the half. 

Aston finished with just 17 yards on 4 carries, but it’s hard to find time to tote the ball for the Panthers when James Conner and Quadree Henderson are around, and both did not disappoint, combining for 175 yards, with Conner leading all rushers with 117 yards on 22 carries and one touchdown on the ground and one in the air, a 12-yard shovel pass from Peterman that closed the scoring on the game for the Panthers, giving them a 42-31 advantage with 10:24 left in the game.

Not needing to throw much with his ground game posting nearly 6-yards a carry, Peterman himself finished just 11 of 15 for 91 yards and 3 touchdowns.

“So many playmakers on the field, the o-line was unbelievable today,” the signal-caller said.   “We just had a little more fire, we came out and we were ready to go.  Our ground game, running backs, o-line were the stars.  Unbelievable today, just awesome.”
Penn State Saquon Barkley
Peterman’s counterpart, McSorley (24 of 35 for 332 yards) found better blocking, more time and a bevy of options to throw to in the second half, helping his Nittany Lions get back into the game.  On arguably its best play of the game, PSU’s offense put together a play action hook up from McSorley to the do-it-all tailback Barkley for a 40-yard touchdown, narrowing the deficit to just a one touchdown difference at 28-21 with 11:54 left in the 3rd quarter.

Barkley served as the catalyst for Penn State’s offense racking up 85 yards on 20 carries, and tying Ki Jana Carter for a PSU all-time best five touchdowns in a game.  Barkley’s 2-yard rush with five minutes left in the game, capped a 6-play, 60-yard drive and brought PSU back to within a field goal, and marked the last time either team would reach the end zone.

“The past is in the past,” said Barkley.  “Were worried about what we’re doing this year.  Were upset that we lost the game, but I love my team to death.  We have to build off of this and learn from it.  Pitt just played better.”

That Opening Drive Though
When you think Narduzzi football, you most notably toss in fillers like smash mouth, gritty and in your face.  Put it all together and you’ll find the theme for Pitt’s opening drive of the game, which went 99-yards on 10 plays (9 rushing) capped by a George Aston 1-yard jet sweep to the end zone.

That drive ate up 4:43 and not only put the PSU defense on its heels early, but tranced the offense into a costly fumble just one play into its ensuing drive.

“I thought it was an early statement that we made,” said Peterman about the drive.  “We came out and knew what the task was, and knew that we had to get the momentum right off the bat.”

“We came out early and we had a little more fire under our asses, and we were pushing a little more because we know what we’re capable of,” said right tackle Brian O’ Neill. 

Special Team’s Will Make or Break ya’
Dating back to last year’s bowl game Quadree Henderson has returned a touchdown on a kickoff in two straight games.  Today’s game ended that streak, but nonetheless the special team demon single-handedly shifted the momentum on a spin-and-dash 84-yard kick return to the PSU 10-yard line, leading to a 12-yard Peterman to Conner hook up advancing Pitt’s lead to a 42-31 advantage.

“Their kickoff return when we had swung momentum back in our direction was a huge play,” said Franklin.  “We didn’t have the ball kicked in the area of the field that it was supposed to be kicked.  On top of that, we didn’t do a great job of getting the blocks and tackling.”

Henderson talked about not scoring on the play.

“My teammates were just exited that I could get the team into field position, he said.  “I was mad at myself though.  I just did what I had to do to get down there.”

The receiver by trade also finished with 47 yards on 3 receptions and a touchdown, a 7-yard connection from Peterman for the second Panthers score of the day in the 1st quarter.

Record Breaking Crowd
Not since a 1938 Pitt vs. Fordham matchup at old Pitt Stadium was there such a crowd even close to his capacity in Pittsburgh (pro and college) sports history.  69,983 people saw today’s game at Heinz Field.

“It was really exciting seeing all of those people,” said Jordan Whitehead.  “It gets you pumped up definitely, and you can really feel it with all that noise.  Just really exciting.”

Is This a Rivalry?
Mixed emotions came out of both locker rooms, both fan bases and all media outlets questioning, is Pitt vs. Penn State really a rivalry?

If you talk to Pitt quarterback Nate Peterman, it shouldn’t even be a question.

“We were motivated by their trash talk off the field before the game,” he said.  “Everything they said on Twitter and throughout, it got us fired up and really I hope it adds to this rivalry game.”

“Coach Narduzzi showed us a few things of people saying this wasn’t a rivalry,” said Whitehead.  “That’s fine if they don’t think that but we’ll see about next year.”

Penn State receiver DeAndre Thompkins had a different feel post game.

“I’m not too sure man.  We just focus on the next team.  We don’t really build up anybody or downplay anybody.  Pitt was on our schedule,” said Thompkins.  “We got focused and we got ready to play them.  We treated them like our next opponent.  We play big games every week.”

After the Spread
Pitt opened the week as a consensus 4-point favorite in Las Vegas.  The line dropped from 3.5 to 3 points prior to kickoff.  Depending on how lucky you were as a Pitt backer, it was a good day or a really bittersweet one.
Pitt James Conner
The over/under was set at 44.5 points, and was absolutely obliterated with both team’s combining for 81-points, the most ever in this rivalry.

Next Up
Pitt (2-0) will move on to face Big 12 foe Oklahoma State in Stillwater, OK.  That kickoff is set for 3:30 PM.  PSU (1-1) will move on to face Temple at home with that kickoff slated for noon.  Both games will be played Saturday, Sept. 17.

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