Charles LeClaire

Pitt Survives Thriller Against Penn State 42-39

Pitt and Penn State renewed their storied rivalry after a 16-year hiatus. A record crowd at Heinz Field watched in suspense as Pitt outgunned Penn State 42-39 in an offensive showdown.

A typical Week 2 college football game involves a pair of unfamiliar teams running through the motions of the game, desperately trying to shake off the rust that accumulated during the offseason. This was no such game. This game was the equivalent of two thoroughbreds rounding the final turn at Belmont Stakes full throttle. Both teams left every ounce of energy on the field, and in the end, Pitt won the race by a nose.   

This was a meeting between two familiar foes in a legendary state rivalry oozing with nostalgia and lore.  Pitt (1-0,0-0 ACC) and Pennsylvania State University (1-0,0-0 Big Ten) were all too familiar with each other going into this contest. Their last meeting on September 16, 2000 ended with a 12-0 Panther victory, and after both teams took the field before kickoff, it was abundantly clear that they each wanted a crack at each other.

The stage was certainly set for a classic back and forth football game as 69,983 fans attended the game. This staggering number broke Pitt’s attendance record of 68,918, which occurred during Pitt’s 1938 football game against Fordham at the old Pitt Stadium. It also set a record as the city of Pittsburgh’s highest attended sporting event. The fans would not be disappointed.

After an astute defensive stand by Pitt on Penn State’s first drive, the Panthers drove 99 yards for a touchdown led by a Quadree Henderson rush of 38 yards and a 24-yard James Conner rush. The drive was capped off with a 1-yard touchdown run by George Aston. It was his first touchdown as a Panther.

On the ensuing possession, Ejuan Price recorded a monster sack on Trace McSorley that forced a fumble recovered by the Panthers. Pitt scored off of the costly Penn State turnover with a 7-yard touchdown pass from Nate Peterman to Quadree Henderson.

However, The Nittany Lions refused to back down and countered with two short touchdown runs by Saquon Barkley.

At the end of the half, Pitt led Penn State 28-14. The Panther offense possessed a more up tempo style as coach Narduzzi began to incorporate end-around reverses and misdirection runs into the rushing attack. George Aston had 3 carries for 17 yards and 2 touchdowns, and James Conner had 10 carries for 81 yards. Nate Peterman completed 6 out of 8 passes recording 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. Defensively, the Panthers forced 3 total fumbles, including 2 by Ejuan Price. Both of Price’s forced fumbles were recovered by Pitt.

To start the second half, two silly penalties by Pitt led to a 40-yard touchdown pass from McSorley to Barkley to bring the score to 28-21.

On the next possession, James Conner, Darrin Hall, and Quadree Ollison responded by grinding the Panthers up the field against the helpless Nittany Lion defense. The drive ended with an acrobatic James Conner touchdown as he soared over the chaos below him for a 1-yard score. Pitt was back up by 2 possessions with a score of 35-21.

As Penn State began to inch closer to Pitt’s red zone, Barkley committed his second fumble of the contest resulting in Penn State’s 3rd turnover. Regarding his team’s turnover struggles, Penn State coach James Franklin said “If you lose the turnover battle and turn the ball over in your area of the field, you’re going to have a hard time winning consistently.”

Despite this setback, Penn State fought back with a quick 68-yard drive that included a 39-yard pass from McSorley to DeAndre Thompkins. Barkley then scored his 4th total touchdown of the day as he plunged into the end zone for a 1-yard score. Pitt still led 35-28.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, their man-of-steel James Conner fumbled the ball on Pitt’s 11-yard line. This gave the Nittany Lions the perfect opportunity to tie up the contest, but a heroic sack by Quintin Wirginis held the Nittany Lions to a field goal by Tyler Davis.

After an 84-yard kick return by Quadree Henderson, James Connor waltzed into the end zone after receiving a 12-yard shovel pass by Nate Peterman. This is another example of Narduzzi’s brilliantly deceptive play calling on offense today. “We got off to a fast start,” said coach Narduzzi. “Last week wasn’t our real offense. This is our offense.” He Continued by saying “I give credit to Coach Canada for calling great plays. It was a fast start with great coaching and execution.”        

Still, Penn State would not quit as Saquon Barkley scored his 5th total touchdown of the contest with a 2-yard rush. This was the most touchdowns by a Penn State player since Ki-Jana Carter against Michigan State in 1994. After Barkley’s heroics, the score was 42-39.

With the game on the line, Ryan Lewis made the most important play in the entire game. With less than 2 minutes left in the contest, he intercepted Trace McSorley’s errant pass attempt in the back of the end zone. That all but sealed a victory for Pitt. The final score remained 42-39.

Pitt’s offensive attack was led by James Conner, who gained 117 yards on 22 carries and scored one rushing and one receiving touchdown. Nate Peterman threw 11 for 15 with 91 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 1 interception. Scott Orndoff and Quadree Henderson each had 1 receiving touchdown. Defensively, the team had 4 sacks and an outstanding 5 forced fumbles. Three of them were recovered by Pitt. Ryan Lewis also had the critical interception to end the game.

For Penn State, Saquon Barkley led the offense with 20 carries for 85 yards and 4 rushing touchdowns. He also scored a receiving touchdown. Trace McSorley completed 24 out of 35 passes with 1 touchdown and 1 interception. Their leading receiver was DaeSean Hamilton with 8 catches for 82 yards.

Despite Pitt’s thrilling victory, the celebrations became bittersweet due to coach Narduzzi’s news concerning two defensive stalwarts. “Regarding Elija Zeise and Dewayne Hendrix, unfortunately I had to text them this morning that they are going to be out for the year,” said coach Narduzzi hesitantly. The Panthers must now find players who can fill their defensive roles.

At the end of the 97th installment of Pennsylvania’s battle for college football supremacy, Pitt came out on top. Although, Penn State will certainly use today’s contest for motivation when the Panthers traverse into Happy Valley next fall for their 98th meeting.   

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