Where do I sign up for four more years of this game already? The re-ignition of the Pitt-Penn State rivalry unfolded to a scene that Hollywood screen writers might call too absurd as Pitt defeated Penn State, 42-39.
The Panthers roared out to an impressive start, ramming the ball 99 yards down the Nittany Lion’s throat on their opening drive. Pinned at their own 1-yard line by an excellent Penn State punt, no matter, Pitt traveled the distance of the field on the ground with bruising runs by James Conner, receiver Qadree Ollison ripping off chunks on end-arounds and fullback George Aston scooted into the end zone from one yard out for the score. That’s smash mouth football.
On the first play of the ensuing PSU drive, Ejuan Price ripped and dipped beneath Penn State’s left tackle, forcing a strip sack on QB Trace McSorley. Pitt recovered, taking over the ball deep in PSU territory. The Panthers capitalized two plays later, when Nate Peterman hooked up with receiver Qadree Henderson for a seven-yard touchdown pass. Henderson has made a sizable impact through the air and on the ground; he looks electric so far this season.
PSU opened the door back up with a long punt return deep into Pitt territory. John Reid returned Pitt punter Ryan Winslow’s kick 59 yards deep into Pitt territory, setting up shop for Penn State at the Panther 15-yard line. That led to the Nittany Lions first score, a three-yard dash by Saquon Barkley.
With the score back at 14-7 after a nightmarish start for Penn State, it had an opportunity to right the ship. The Panthers, though, swung back with another punch of their own. Pitt marched down the field capped off by Peterman using a play action fake to open up tight end Scott Orndoff for a four-yard touchdown catch. The toss was Peterman’s second TD pass on the day, as it was 21-7 Pitt.
Pitt disrupter Ejuan Price did it again, more than snuffing out the Penn State’s option play, Price punched the ball out from McSorley’s grasp on their next possesion, and it resulted in McSorley’s second fumble on the afternoon.
Playmaker Jordan Whitehead in for an offensive snap promptly took an end-around down to the Penn State 4-yard line, one late misstep out of bounds from diving into the end zone. Pitt continually gashed the Nittany Lions on end-around action during the first half. After playing a big role in the drive, James Conner plays the role of decoy. Pitt fullback George Aston punched in his second touchdown run of the day, making it 28-7 as Pitt continued to impose their will.
It appeared the rout may be on, though Penn State was not to be deterred. The Nittany Lions cashed in on a one-yard touchdown plunge from Barkley, who went over the top with 42 seconds remaining in the first half, making it a close contest at 28-14 in favor of Pitt.
PSU drew closer, opening up the second half scoring with a swing pass to Barkley for 40 yards and a Penn State touchdown making it 28-21 Pitt.
With the game once again hanging in the balance, Pitt responded with an enormous touchdown drive. Panther running back Darrin Hall came off the bench and provided a boost, carrying much of the drive. Initially ruled a touchdown on the field, replay overturned and Hall was marked down at the half-yard line. After a lengthy review, Conner dove in for the Panthers, putting them up 35-21.
Another pivotal mistake on the next drive for Penn State, as on the move into Pitt territory, Barkley was stripped by the Panthers who also recover the fumble. Safety Terrish Webb with the perfect punch to induce the fumble and linebacker Mike Caprara recovered the fumble. Though a golden opportunity, Pitt didn’t cash in. Following a Panther three-and-out, Barkley racked up his fourth touchdown on the day, third on the ground, making it 35-28 Pitt.
On an inexplicable turn of events, Conner coughed the up the ball, fumbling the deep in Pitt territory recovered by Penn State. The game that Pitt once dominated was now hanging by a thread. At the last moment, the Panthers defense held strong, holding PSU on a third and 9 from the Panther 10-yard line. The Nittany Lions had to settle for a field goal, cutting the Pitt lead to 35-31.
An early laugher quickly turned into an all-out brawl. Thankfully for Pitt, Henderson had an answer once again, sparking Pitt with a zig-zagging return down the PSU 10-yard line. Following a few uneventful plays, the Panthers dialed up a risky shovel pass on third down and 9 from the Penn State 10 to the team’s heart and soul. Conner didn’t disappoint, catching the Nittany Lions off guard, and prancing 10 yards to pay dirt, making it 42-31 Panthers.
A once insurmountable lead for Pitt was quickly dwindling along with the game clock, but Penn State once again drove down field, consummating in yet another Saquon Barkley touchdown tote and a two-point conversion from McSorley to receiver DaeSean Hamilton making it 42-39 Pitt.
With all hell now completely unleashed, the Panthers failed to grind the clock out, having to settle for a punt with 4:49 now remaining. Penn State, unthinkably, now had the ball with a chance to take the lead, down only 42-39.
Despite facing a daunting fourth and 16, Penn State carried on, converting on a possibly back-breaking 34-yard fourth-down catch by DeAndre Thompkins, pushing the Nittany Lions to the Pitt 32-yard line.
This was an all too familiar script for Pitt faithful, dominating all afternoon, only to lose late on drastic, even sometimes unthinkable let downs. But today wouldn’t be one in the same, just after allowing a doubt-enducing fourth and 16 conversion, Pitt safety Ryan Lewis made an over the shoulder grab on an interception in the Panthers end zone with only 2:15 left on the game clock.
Panthers players, coaches and fans could finally let loose a sigh of relief. A game had hints at turning lopsided early twisted and turned its way all the way to an instant classic on a beautiful afternoon at Heinz Field. So after the Panthers 42-39 victory, I’ll ask once more – Where do I sign up for four more years of this?
Photo credit: Pitt Football