football Edit

Goal line call overshadows strong performances in loss to PSU

MORE FROM PITT'S LOSS AT PENN STATE - Narduzzi defends goal line decision | Notebook: Career days and more from the loss at Penn State | Video: Narduzzi's postgame press conference | Narduzzi on the goal line, the loss and more | Video: Twyman on the defense | Video: Pickett and Mack after the game | PODCAST: The drive home after Penn State

When the end of a close game turns on a coach’s decision, that will inevitably draw attention away from everything that preceded it.

Such was the case on Saturday, when Pitt’s 17-10 loss to Penn State at Beaver Stadium closed the current iteration of the in-state series with a hard-fought, back-and-forth tussle that saw the Panthers give the No. 13 Nittany Lions all they could handle.

The end-game decision, of course, was Pat Narduzzi’s call to try a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 1 with his team trailing by seven and five minutes left on the clock rather than leave his offense on the field to go for a game-tying touchdown.

Narduzzi’s rationale, he said in the postgame press conference, was to get the first of the two scores Pitt would need in order to take the lead. That logic is debatable and it dominated the conversation in the aftermath of the game - so much so that it overshadowed what was probably the Panthers’ best overall performance of 2019 and possibly their best game since they beat Wake Forest last November.

It started with quarterback Kenny Pickett, who completed 35-of-51 passes for 372 yards - all career highs - while looking sharper and more poised than he has at virtually any point in his career. Pickett felt the pressure well, stepped up in the pocket, escaped when he needed to, found open receivers and showed good accuracy throughout the game.

And he did it while facing a pass rush that produced eight sacks through the first two games of the season with a pair of future NFL players at defensive end. That element of Penn State’s defense was expected to give Pickett trouble; instead, he was relatively comfortable dropping back more times than he ever has in his career, and while he didn’t throw a touchdown pass, it was easily the best performance of his 18 career starts.

The credit extends to Pitt’s offensive line and pass protection as well. While Pro Football Focus officially recorded 21 pressures on Pickett’s 58 drop-backs, the unit overall seemed to regularly give him an extra second or two.

The Panthers’ receiving corps showed up on Saturday, too. Pro Football Focus charged the Panthers with four drops - two for Tre Tipton and one each for Maurice Ffrench and Taysir Mack - but that crew plus Pitt’s running backs and tight ends all stepped up in key moments throughout the game.

Mack stood out with a career-high 12 catches for 125 yards, including a pair of big grabs on Pitt’s final two possessions, but he wasn’t the only pass-catcher to make plays. A.J. Davis picked up 48 yards on a well-executed screen pass. Dontavius Butler-Jenkins grabbed a 27-yard reception to set up Pitt’s second-quarter touchdown. And Nakia Griffin-Stewart came up big with a 37-yard catch on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter after Pickett and Davis executed a perfect play-action fake.

Pitt’s defense had itself a day as well. Penn State came into Saturday’s game averaging 62 points and 515 yards per game after hanging 79 on Idaho and 45 on Buffalo. Sean Clifford had thrown for 559 yards and six touchdowns in those two wins, and the PSU running game was averaging better than 200 yards per game.

Against the Panthers, though, the Nittany Lions produced just 17 points and less than 400 yards. They rushed for 167 yards, more than half of which came on one long run by Journey Brown in the first quarter, and Clifford was 14-of-30 for 222 yards and no touchdowns. Penn State’s pass protection had also given up just three sacks against Idaho and Buffalo; Pitt’s defense got to Clifford three times on Saturday.

The Panthers also did a good job of mostly containing Penn State’s primary receiving threats. Tight end Pat Freiermuth came into the game as the Nittany Lions’ leading receiver with nine catches and two touchdowns after two weeks; on Saturday he caught a 16-yard pass on Penn State’s first offensive snap but was not heard from again. And star receiver KJ Hamler had just three receptions against the Panthers.

Even punter Kirk Christodoulou had a standout day; he averaged 45 yards on his six punts and dropped four of them inside the 15.