STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State passed an early-season test and provided a statement about its prowess among college football’s most impressive programs Saturday. The Nittany Lions quickly built an advantage over visiting Pitt, and they put the game out of reach with rugged defense and the ticking time bomb that is running back Saquon Barkley.
The end result, a 33-14 victory over the Panthers, presents further evidence that Penn State coach James Franklin has delivered his program to expectations that simply didn’t seem realistic last September. This sentiment resonated from a convincing performance on the field to a decade-best attendance of 109,898 people in Beaver Stadium.
“I think we all see how special this place is when everyone is pulling the rope in the same direction,” Franklin said afterward.
Look back to Sept. 10, 2016, when Penn State fell, 42-39, at Pitt. Franklin’s record with the Nittany Lions dropped to 15-13, doubts crept in among the fan base, and feelings were stirred in the Penn State locker room.
Those were the kind of feelings that linger for a full year.
“I took the game personal because I didn’t like how the outcome was last year and the disrespect Pitt had to Penn State and Coach Franklin,” Nittany Lions defensive end Shareef Miller said. “I’ll never forget last year, walking out [of] the stadium, the fans and all the stuff they said. I’ll never forget that.”
Perhaps Miller — and teammates — eradicated the feelings that have gnawed since 2016, made worse in the rear-view mirror when that defeat ultimately cost Penn State a spot in the College Football Playoff. Perhaps they’ve been replaced by a moment far more fresh, an afternoon filled with communal optimism.
“Honestly, it was really ‘wow’ today,” Miller said. “Being out there, making plays, hearing all the fans — it was surreal. I definitely did get chills.”
Video of #PennState celebrating 2016 Big Ten championship, team introduction and some boos for Pitt.
Beaver Stadium is rocking. pic.twitter.com/HPr23hyvPG
— Tyler Donohue (@TDsTake) September 9, 2017
Miller led the team with 2 sacks and 2 1/2 tackles for loss. A Penn State defense that surrendered at least 40 points in each of the team’s three losses last season has allowed just 1 touchdown through eight quarters of action.
Cornerback Grant Haley helped set the tone by intercepting a deep pass attempt from Panthers quarterback Max Browne. Penn State scored the game’s first points one play later when quarterback Trace McSorley found tight end Mike Gesicki for an 8-yard touchdown.
“It’s amazing when both sides are clicking,” running back Saquon Barkley said. “I feel like we’re a very balanced team. We go against each other every day with all the little periods that we do. Iron sharpens iron, and we’ll continue to build off this game.”
Despite entering halftime with a 14-3 advantage, the Nittany Lions managed just 9 minutes of possession through two quarters. Pitt, holding the ball 21 minutes, posted only a field goal but certainly seemed within striking distance. Barkley, considered a top Heisman Trophy contender, was limited to 22 yards on 6 touches in the first half.
“Saquon is not a guy you can stop for a while,” linebacker Jason Cabinda said. “He’s going to get his.”
Barkley got his throughout the third quarter, converting an intermediate reception into a 46-yard score. He tallied 104 offensive yards in the quarter, which ended with Penn State seizing control and on the doorstep of expanding its lead.
Barkley plowed through a trio of tackle attempts en route to an 8-yard score on the fourth quarter’s first play, pushing the Nittany Lions to a 28-6 lead.
“I wish you guys could see it in the locker room [at halftime] — our offensive staff gets together in a little room, figures it out, comes out with a great plan together,” Barkley said. “They give you the game plan. You’ve just got to execute it.”
— Penn State Football (@PennStateFball) September 9, 2017
Barkley finished with 133 yards and 2 touchdowns on 18 offensive touches. He initially said there wasn’t a “revenge factor” to this matchup but seemed to rethink things, even if just slightly, while continuing to share his thoughts.
“You’re supposed to celebrate when you win a game, but when they won last year I think it was a little too much, especially Pitt fans on social media,” Barkley said. “The only thing I felt disrespected about last year was just how the Pitt fans reacted. I think there’s a point you can take it to, and they took it too far.”
He won’t return the favor by gloating in the aftermath of a decisive victory.
“That  game is in the past, this game is in the past,” Barkley said. “Now we’ll learn from it and move on to Georgia State [Sept. 16 in Beaver Stadium].”
Cabinda echoed that statement, and took it a step further.
“Every game is as important as the next,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who the opponent is — it could be Bridgewater High School or the Green Bay Packers — we’ve got to take care of business. We need to do everything we can during the week to make sure we come out 1-0.”
It’s clear the leaders of this team have adopted the mantra, and taken the lead, of Franklin.
“This win is no more significant for us than Akron,” the fourth-year coach said.
Some of his comments from Saturday evening undoubtedly will gain extra attention in Pittsburgh and across sports media. However, these are the type of statements we’ll hear him make after the next 10 regular-season games and beyond.
That approach has worked, as Penn State is now 12-2 since it lost to Pitt. The Nittany Lions didn’t warrant a top-25 ranking until Week 9 in 2016. Now, Franklin’s squad should enter Week 3 listed at No. 4.
To borrow Miller’s description, the setting in Beaver Stadium on Saturday afternoon was quite “surreal” when you measure it up against where this program was exactly one year ago.
Pitt wasn’t a fixation for Franklin, just another stepping stone toward where he wants Penn State to reach.
“What we’ve bought into here is we work to our standard in the game — a championship standard,” offensive lineman Andrew Nelson said. “Although you’re playing an opponent who maybe you have a rivalry between, we focused on playing up to our standard.”