Five Things We Learned: Pitt

Story posted September 12, 2016 in Sports, CommRadio by Charles Hart

For the first time since 2000, Penn State and Pitt renewed their historic rivalry. The Nittany Lions entered Heinz Field as the underdogs, and in the first half they sure looked like one. Pitt’s rushing attack, led by James Conner, tormented the Lion’s defense the entire first half. Behind a stellar run game and Penn State turnovers, the Panthers found themselves up 28-14 at halftime. 

The Nittany Lions rallied back in the second half. Behind Saquon Barkley’s five total touchdowns and Trace McSorley’s three hundred yards passing, Penn State found themselves in prime position to win the game. Down only a field goal and within field goal range with over a minute remaining, McSorley overthrew a ball into double coverage in the end zone and was intercepted, clinching the win for the Panthers. 

Here are a few things the Penn State faithful can take away from the heartbreaking loss to Pitt:

Penn State’s offensive line continues to struggle

The offensive line for Penn State has been much-maligned for years. Last week, the offensive line was unspectacular. This week, the group was disastrous.

Pitt was able to record four sacks, including a crucial sack on third down, ten yards away from the end zone with Penn State down a touchdown. Brendan Mahon, for the second straight week, allowed his assignment to blow by him leading to a sack and a fumble. 

Penn State will play currently fifth-ranked Michigan in two weeks. Michigan possesses one of the most talented defensive lines in all of college football. If the offensive line struggles this badly against the pedestrian defensive line of Kent State, and the solid, yet far from superlative defensive line of Pitt, how will this offensive line fare against Michigan’s elite defensive front? Odds are, not great.

Pitt runs all over ‘Linebacker U’ with 341 yards

Penn State’s defense did not fare well against Pitt’s rushing attack. The defense played a sloppy game in the first half with tons of missed tackles. Early in the game, the Panthers received the ball on their one-yard line after a terrific punt from Blake Gillikin. Pitt ran for 99 yards on that touchdown drive and finished the first half with 226 rushing yards.

Beyond the effectiveness of James Conner (22 carries for 117 yards), simple jet-sweets revealed to be the Achilles’ heel of the Nittany Lion defense, with Pitt wide receiver Quadree Henderson taking an end-around for a 38-yard gain.

Penn State football is a program that prides itself on its defensive playmaking ability. Defensive Coordinator Brent Pry still has plenty of work to do to make sure this defense lives up to their reputation.

Saquon Barkley continues incredible start to the season

Last season, Saquon Barkley finished the season with seven rushing touchdowns. Through the first two games of the 2016 campaign, Barkley has five rushing touchdowns, and he may reach last year’s total in just the team’s third game of the season next week against Temple.

Barkley was truly a workhorse for Penn State on Saturday. He found his way in the end zone on five different occasions, including a 40-yard catch and run from McSorley. 

The combination of his quick feet to make something out of nothing and his strength to carry defenders for extra yards makes Barkley one of the most talented running backs in the NCAA. His performances in the first two games of the season has been nothing short of remarkable. 

Daesean Hamilton’s big game will be overshadowed by his big drop

Daesean Hamilton had quite the blunder against the Panthers in a crucial point of the game.

The moment was there. In a huge rivalry game, Penn State would come back, after being down three scores early, to shock Pitt in the fourth quarter.

Hamilton, after a double move, got a step on his defender. McSorley placed the ball right in his grasp. A surefire touchdown and an upset over rival Pittsburgh was in their grasp, but the ball was not in Hamilton’s grasp. 

While the talk about Hamilton this week will all be about his crucial drop, it should not be.

Hamilton was, besides Saquon Barkley, arguably the Lion’s biggest performer against Pitt. Hamilton caught the ball eight times for 82 yards.

Hamilton was moved to the slot this season. While he did not have a big game against Kent State, he did catch a touchdown in the red zone. This experiment really worked wonders against the Panthers. Hamilton helped move the chains on many occasions on Saturday, and was a huge reason why the blue-and-white were in the game at all.

Instead of lamenting Hamilton’s drop, the Penn State faithful should be giddy about the future of Hamilton in Joe Moorhead’s offense.

McSorley must hold onto the pigskin

Trace McSorley had an up and down day against Pitt. He finished the game 24/35 with 332 yards and a touchdown pass. 

McSorley made some tough throws, including a throw that led to a sensational one-handed grab by DeAndre Thompkins, and the aforementioned DaeSean Hamilton catch that wasn’t. He by no means played a poor game.

However, his two fumbles helped cost the Nittany Lions the game in Pittsburgh. While one of his two fumbles may have been the fault of his left tackle, the other was on McSorley. The fumble led to a Pitt touchdown three players later. 

And of course, McSorley’s interception in the fourth quarter, throwing into a crowd of blue jerseys down three points, at Pitt’s 31-yard line, certainly was an inexplicable gaffe he will be kicking himself for until next Saturday, at least.

Through two games, McSorley has three fumbles and an interception, but there were moments in Saturday’s game in which you could see his talent, with his completion to Thompkins on fourth-and-16 being evidence of this. Yet at the end of the day, the bottom line is if McSorley wants to succeed as the quarterback of the Nittany Lions, he must limit his turnover production.

 

Charles Hart is a freshman majoring in print journalism. To contact him, email charliethart@gmail.com.