A crisis was averted during the second half Saturday, but now the work that will define this season begins for the Penn State coaching staff.
The return of the Pitt-Penn State rivalry was spectacular for college football. The comeback in a 42-39 loss was great for the confidence of the Penn State offense, the psyche of the Nittany Lions defense and probably changed the tenor of the fan base’s reaction to a defeat.
It’s still a loss to Pitt, and a second-straight defeat to an in-state school. Had this ended up a blowout as it appeared it might, it would have been a very long week for Penn State coach James Franklin and his staff.
Now, there are positives to build on, but there are also plenty of problems to improve on and correct.
It’s incredible that Penn State was even in this game at the end, and yet the Nittany Lions will go back to State College one dropped pass by the team’s most reliable receiver, DaeSean Hamilton, away from possibly stealing an improbable victory.
The crowd, the crazy emotional swings, the great plays were everything college football fans desire. The turnovers, missed tackles and blown assignments are things Penn State needs to limit moving forward.
Of all the problems, what was most obvious was Penn State’s horrid run defense. It was abysmal early.
Having more scholarship players on the defensive line doesn’t mean Penn State was going to be able to adequately replace three NFL players. Also, losing a key player like defensive tackle Kevin Givens early in the contest didn’t help either, but Pitt was gashing the Penn State defense with ease regardless of who lined up.
Having more recruited players and better depth along the offensive line is also nice, but that doesn’t make it easier for them to block experienced, talented defensive linemen.
Pitt’s defense penetrated with ease early on, and caused all kinds of problems for Penn State’s zone-read attack. It didn’t matter which unblocked player Trace McSorley was reading, because there were two or three other poorly blocked Panthers quickly in the backfield to disrupt plays.
The offense eventually figured some things out and found ways to move the ball to keep this game from being a rout. McSorley had a huge game, throwing for 332 yards.
Franklin said after the game that someone ran the wrong route on McSorley’s final pass, an interception in the end zone, After a shaky start and two more fumbles, the quarterback charged with replacing an NFL player (Christian Hackenberg) settled in and made some great throws.
New offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead made some nice second-half adjustments, including using tailback Saquon Barkley and tight end Mike Gesicki more in pass protection to help an overmatched offensive line.
The defense certainly has more work to do. Replacing those three NFL guys on the defensive line (Carl Nassib, Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson) is not going to be easy.
Penn State hasn’t been able to recruit at the level of programs with similar expectations, not only in numbers but more importantly in talent. Losing a few players to the NFL is not a problem at Ohio State or Michigan. It can even be overcome at not-quite-elite programs, either through development or schemes.
Bob Shoop isn’t around to help hit the reset button with the defense. Penn State’s defensive staff, now led by Brent Pry, needs to find answers.
The defense was outschemed in the first half. Pitt went wide with a variety of creative play-calls, using a by-committee approach to stretch the Nittany Lions horizontally.
That forced a lack of creativity from the defense, and Pitt easily won one-on-one matchups in the middle of the field to open big holes for a cadre of running backs led by James Connor. When Connor needed a break, Pitt turned to Qadre Ollison, or Darren Hall. The Panthers finished the game with 341 yards on the ground and averaged more than six yards per attempt.
After Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman’s 30-yard scramble with 4:18 left in the third quarter, the Nittany Lions did hold the Panthers to 15 yards on their next 10 rushing attempts to help give the offense a chance, but a long kick return and a touchdown on a shovel pass to Connor proved to be the winning score.
Barkley was phenomenal despite limited help from his blockers, and finished with five touchdowns. McSorley dumped the ball to Hamilton a lot early, but found new targets as the game went on. Even with Chris Godwin slowed by an injury, other receivers like DeAndre Thompkins and Juwan Johnson made huge plays.
A scene on the sideline in the final moments, with McSorley consoling an emotional Hamilton, underscored the takeaway for Penn State. It was a great comeback, but an emotional loss remains.
The Nittany Lions must tackle better on defense. They must diagnose mis-direction players better. They still need to block better on offense. The offensive line was bad early, improved and then got beat for sacks on multiple drives in the fourth quarter.
This wasn’t a must-win game, but it was a “don’t get embarrassed” game. That nearly happened, but the rally avoided it.
Next up is Temple, and that is now a must-win game. When Franklin came to Penn State, one of his catch-phrases was “dominate the state.” Penn State is currently on a two-game losing streak against Pennsylvania foes, and it cannot become three seven days from now.