PITTSBURGH — After Pitt held on to beat Penn State 42-39 on Saturday, Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi swore that offensive coordinator Matt Canada had a list of 350 plays on the chart he wore on his wrist.
It only seemed like they ran all of them in the first half.
Pitt built a 28-7 lead in the game’s first 18 minutes, relentlessly pounding the ball on the ground behind a veteran offensive line. Some 226 of the Panthers’ 341 rushing yards came in the first half, and James Conner finished the day with 117 on 22 carries.
If they had been vanilla on offense in their season-opening 28-7 victory over Villanova, they threw the whole dairy at the Lions on Saturday.
“Last week wasn’t our real offense,” Narduzzi said. “This is our offense.”
“Earlier in the week,” tight end Scott Orndorff said, “Coach just said, ‘You know what, if we can run the ball every play, we’re going to.’ ”
And they seemingly did it from every angle. There were thrusts up the gut by Conner, jet sweeps by Quadree Henderson (4-58 rushing) and fullback counters by George Aston, who had two short TD runs.
Penn State coach James Franklin acknowledged that the Panthers had shown little in their opener, and added that the surprises went even deeper than that.
“The trading (places) and the shifting and the motioning was more than what (Canada) had done in the past, at places like N.C. State and Wisconsin (where he had also served as OC),” Franklin said. “It was part of what they did, but not that big of a role. Obviously when we didn’t do well against it, they were going to keep doing it until we stopped it.”
Conner’s 24-yard blast and Henderson’s 38-yard jet sweep keyed a 10-play, 99-yard touchdown drive the first time Pitt had the ball, and the Panthers later had TD marches of 74 and 75 yards as well.
Their offensive line features a four-year starter (left tackle Adam Bisnowaty), two three-year starters (left guard Dorian Johnson and center Alex Officer) and a two-year starter (right tackle Brian O’Neill), in addition to first-time starter Alex Bookser, the right guard.
And the Lions’ defensive front, you might have heard, no longer features Anthony Zettel, Austin Johnson and Carl Nassib. Middle linebacker Jason Cabinda did not play, with what appears to be a left wrist injury, and outside linebacker Brandon Bell, defensive tackle Kevin Givens, defensive end Evan Schwan and cornerback Grant Haley all left the game in the first half with injuries. Of those only Bell returned, and briefly at that.
“Our offensive line play last week, in my opinion, wasn’t up to par,” O’Neill said. “(The coaches) really challenged us in practice last week to be the best we could be, and I think today we showcased a little bit of that. We just had a little bit more of a fire under our butt this week, pardon my language.”
And a more varied game plan.
“A lot of smoke and mirrors,” said Penn State linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White, who shifted from the weak side to the middle to replace Cabinda. “We had to settle down and be disciplined.”
They did, to some extent, though Pitt also let Penn State back in the game by committing six of their 10 penalties in the second half — two of them major fouls early in the third quarter.
Defensive end Torrence Brown also forced a fumble by Conner early in the fourth quarter, which cornerback John Reid recovered, setting up Tyler Davis’ 38-yard field goal with 12:04 left, cutting the Pitt lead to 35-31.
Henderson’s 84-yard kickoff return led to Conner’s second TD of the game, on a 12-yard shovel pass from quarterback Nate Peterman, but the Lions answered with Saquon Barkley’s fifth score, with five minutes to play.
PSU also converted the two-pointer, on Trace McSorley’s pass to DaeSean Hamilton, leaving the score 42-39. The Lions had one more chance, but McSorley was intercepted by Ryan Lewis in the end zone with 1:15 to play.
The die had been cast long before that, about 350 different ways. Or so it seemed.