The 100th installment of the Penn State-Pitt series truly felt like the end of something. Alumni from both sides, including Franco Harris and Tony Dorsett, convened at Beaver Stadium. The game was the fourth in the latest series and the last scheduled regular-season matchup for the foreseeable future. As in most years, Penn State has much more to play for than hapless Pitt, again picked as an also-ran in the Atlantic Clemson Conference. The final game of the 1997-2000 series ended with Pitt defeating Penn State 12-0. For 16 years, it was all Panther fans could say in support of renewing the “rivalry” with Penn State, who (before that game) was 23-6-1 in the series since Joe Paterno took over the program in 1966.
Penn State capped off the 4-year Keystone Classic by securing a tense 17-10 victory over Pitt. Here are the grades for the contest:
Pitt QB Kenny Pickett threw for 372 yards but had only a 7.3 average yards per completion. He threw 51 passes, mainly because Pitt could not run. The Panther ground game gained 24 yards on 25 carries and was not reliable on critical short-yardage situations. Credit the Lions defensive front with shutting Pitt down while the offense searched for its rhythm. The secondary did allow at least four catches of 27 yards or more, so there is work to be done to clamp down on chunk passing plays. The team registered 3 sacks in addition to the stout run defense.
LB Micah Parsons
Parsons who did his jersey number proud by being a one-man wrecking crew. Seeming involved on every play, Parsons registered 7 solo tackles (9 overall), defended a pass and hurried Pickett. If this is a sign of things to come, Parsons could be in line for some serious hardware by season’s end.
Any team that puts up 79 points in going to receive a perfect grade on offense. However, a great callout here is how many different players got involved. We were treated to 7 rushing touchdowns by 4 different backs (now, that’s what I call running back by committee!), 342 passing yards spread fairly evenly among 10+ targets, and a 3 touchdown and no interception performance by our two quarterbacks.
K Jordan Stout
Stout can boot kickoffs out of the end zone whenever he wants and has a huge leg to support Pinegar’s precision from short range. Stout set a school record with a 57-yard bomb of a field goal that bailed out the offense before half time. The singular kick provided both the ability to not enter halftime behind 10-7 for the second time in 2 weeks and an emotional lift that gave the entire Penn State team momentum coming out of the locker room. Stout fills a sizable long-distance kicking gap from the 2018 team that should pay further dividends down the road.
Honestly, a C- feels generous. The team won the game and did not turn the ball over, which must count for something. The running backs, led by likely starter Journey Brown, performed well as a committee. Ricky Slade seems to be fading away, as the fumble against Buffalo seems to have put him in James Franklin’s doghouse until further notice. Both Noah Cain and Devyn Ford scored, and Brown flipped the field with an 85-yard run in the first quarter.
This game was the first real test for the passing game and new starting QB Sean Clifford, and it showed mightily. The offensive line looked like shades of 2015 when QB #14 (then Christian Hackenberg) had to look down at his blocking before trusting his line for a glance downfield. This group has to play better for the team to be successful. Clifford did not register an official turnover but had a fumble which Penn State recovered, and an interception wiped out by a penalty. He had a sub-50 QBR, 7.4 yards-per-completion, and under 50% completion percentage. Penn State has talented receivers, but the team will only go as far as Clifford takes them. Good or bad, he’s the best option at QB this year, so Clifford must raise his game entering conference season.
The receivers, given limited opportunities, played reasonably well. WR KJ Hamler led the team in receptions and yards, but WR Jahan Dotson seems to have a higher ceiling as an overall playmaker. The dynamic reminds me of DaeSean Hamilton and Chris Godwin of 2016. Penn State needs both receivers to play well to help its young QB.
RB Noah Cain
Brown led the team in rushing thanks to the 85-yard run, but it was Cain who ran like a man on a mission on the go-ahead TD drive in the third quarter. It will be interesting to see which of the running backs, if any, emerges as the starter.
A very frustrating game to watch against saw Penn State start slowly (overall) at home against an inferior opponent, albeit one markedly better than either Idaho or Buffalo. To their credit, the coaches adjusted well at halftime and kept the opponent out of the end zone for the second week in a row. The offensive coaches also reduced the depth of Clifford’s drop back to help the struggling offensive line.
Several questionable play calls continue to plague the Lions, and the lack of a clear-cut #1 at both receiver and running back could become problematic when the team needs to make a play in future games. Waiting until halftime to make adjustments will cost the Nittany Lions dearly against Ohio State and Michigan, and continued subpar position play of the offensive line could derail a promising start to the season. A bye week feels like a welcome event at the team prepares for its first road and conference game against a Maryland team that will be motivated to avenge a loss to Temple. Maryland also has a bye next week, and the game is on Friday night, conditions which saw Penn State struggle with Illinois last year before stomping them in the 4th quarter.
As the Penn State-Pitt series concludes without another meeting on the schedule, it was worth noting the tone of the matchup as the game ended. With a storied history, at its apex of the early 80s the annual matchup of top 10 teams routinely determined the national title picture and order of the first round of the NFL draft. Now, Penn State is concerned more with how to remain annually competitive with the Big Ten’s elite (really only Ohio State), and Pitt struggles to find six wins on its schedule. The end of the game felt more like the mutual breakup of a couple that let its relationship erode than the final battle of a hard-fought war. The game was sloppy, unemotional, and in the end provided nothing more than a list of improvement opportunities for Penn State and a bunch of cliché-laced excuses from Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi.
So long Pitt, thanks for the memories. When you realize that college football has transitioned from regional rivalries to national ones, give us a call. When beating you every year actually helps us improve our national standing, we’ll be happy to oblige.
About the Author:
Adam Kimmel is the founder and Principal at ASK Consulting Solutions, a technical writing firm specializing in engineering content writing. A 2003 graduate and avid fan of Penn State, Adam has followed Penn State football for over 25 years, attending nearly 50 games and researching historical players and teams. He is also a Manager of R&D, and can be found on LinkedIn