PITTSBURGH — We should do that every year.
The Panthers prevailed in dramatic 42-39 fashion over the Penn State Nittany Lions at Heinz Field Saturday. I hate to use hyperbole, but that was one of the best football games I’ve ever covered. The atmosphere at Heinz Field was absolutely electric.
Here’s my five quick takeaway from the Panthers’ exciting victory:
SETTING THE TONE
The Panthers’ first drive stared with the ball at their own one yard line. 10 plays and 109 yards later, (they took a penalty), George Aston rumbled into the end zone to give Pitt an early lead.
Nine of the the ten plays for 99 yards came on the ground.
“When we got out there, we said we had 99 yards to go,” said left tackle Adam Bisnowaty. “We know what we can do. We’ve proven what we can do. For us to show it to everyone nationally is really important to us.”
Aston was a key player on the drive, springing James Conner for a 24-yard romp on the first play and capping it off with this first career rushing touchdown. Aston missed the opener against Villanova with an injury and it was obvious the difference he made for the running game.
“That’s what I think people kind of forgot (about Villanova),” Peterman said. “He’s probably the most underrated play on our team.”
“Any time you have George Aston blocking in front of you, it’s going to help the run game,” said right tackle Brian O’Neill. “He’s a fantastic player. Whatever he sets out to do, that man is going to do it.”
SACKS, FUMBLES AND A PICK
The Pitt defense gave up 332 yards passing to Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley and another 90 on the ground with five touchdown to running back Saquon Barkley.
But what turned the tide in favor of the Panthers were big plays. They recovered three Penn State fumbles, sacked McSorley four times — three on third down, and Ryan Lewis sealed the game with an interception in the end zone.
“When you talk situational football and critical things to winning, you want to win the turnover battle,” said linebacker Mike Caprara, who recovered two fumbles. “The ball bounced our way today.”
Narduzzi was complimentary of how the defense responded to one of his team’s two turnovers. When James Conner fumbled at the Pitt 10-yard line in the fourth quarter, the Nittany Lions were poised to tie the game. But the Pitt defense held fast thanks to a Quintin Wirginis third-down sack.
“After James put the ball on the ground … our guys went out and put up a a three and out,” Narduzzi said. “That’s gigantic. When you get into a sudden-change situation and your defense goes three and out … for us to hold them to three points, that’s the game right there.”
Lewis was still a bit in shock about the enormity of his moment. His leaping interception will go down in history as one of the great game-changing plays of the rivalry.
“That’s what a lot of my teammates were telling me, that you’re going to be on the next highlight tape (for Pitt-Penn State),” Lewis said. “I honestly never would have imagined that. It’s just surreal. It’s great. I’m so happy we got this win.”
NO PASSING ZONE
The Panthers’ offense came out with a strong first half, but as the game went on, it became apparent that the Panthers weren’t particularly interested in throwing the ball down the field.
Nate Peterman’s longest completion of the day was a play-action pass to Quadree Henderson, but other than that, most of his 11 completions came on swings, screens and shovel passes.
It took Penn State an extremely long time to adjust to the Pitt game plan and stack more players in the box.
“If we’re going to keep getting those big plays (running), we’re going to keep doing,” said quarterback Nate Peterman. “Our offensive line came to play today.”
While Pitt did gash the Lions for 6.1 yards per carry as a team, the inability to move the ball downfield threatened the Panthers when they needed to put a couple drives together to put the game away in the fourth quarter.
“Last week wasn’t really our offense,” Narduzzi said. “This was our offense. I think it’s going to be something you’ll see every week. We have more.”
Pitt will have to show more to continue to win as more tape of their run-heavy approach gets around.
Narduzzi’s full remarks:
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) September 10, 2016
WORKING THE CHAINS
Pitt was able to string together big drives without the passing game by staying out of third-and-long situations. The huge yards-per-carry number helped that. So did the ability to use short passes to spread the defense out.
“That’s huge,” Narduzzi said. “When you can establish the run game and stop them from running the ball … you win all day with that.”
The Panthers finished just 4 of 12 on third-down conversions, mostly due to second-half difficulties.
Narduzzi announced that defensive end Dewayne Hendrix (left foot) and outside linebacker Elijah Zeise (left ankle) will both be out for the season. They both had surgery on Friday night.
Hendrix and Zeise were both injured in the team’s opener against Villanova. Zeise was seen sporting a cast and got around with the assistance of a wheeled cart for his left leg.
“It’s unfortunate because they are two great young men and great players, and we are going to miss them on the playing field,” Narduzzi said.
Both players have already redshirted, so they will most likely lose a year of eligibility. Both will be redshirt juniors in 2017.
Blair started in place of Hendrix at defensive end, making two tackles (one for a loss) and a sack. Seun Idowu started at outside linebacker and was third on the team with six tackles. He also had a forced fumble. Bam Bradley got a good bit of playing time at that spot, as well, collecting four tackles
The Panthers also suffered one notable loss during the game. Wide receiver Dontez Ford left the game after making a tackle on an interception in the second quarter. He did not return.
Ford was replaced by freshman Aaron Mathews, who made his collegiate debut. The Clairton grad did not catch a pass.