STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — James Franklin kept trying to downplay the importance of Penn State’s meeting with Pittsburgh. The most important game in the universe to be sure, the coach said in the run-up to the 98th meeting between the two schools just 140 miles apart. But only because it was the only one his team had this week.
Funny, Franklin’s players didn’t quite see it the same way.
A year after a loss to the Panthers ended up playing a role in keeping them out of the College Football Playoff, the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions exacted a bit of revenge with a 33-14 victory on Saturday that looked more lopsided on the scoreboard than it appeared at times on the field.
“Guys had grudges, a chip on their shoulders, coming into this game like myself,” said Penn State senior safety Marcus Allen, who tackled Darrin Hall in the end zone for a safety in the fourth quarter. “I definitely did.”
Trace McSorley tossed three touchdown passes for the Nittany Lions (2-0), including Saquon Barkley’s 46-yard catch-and-run early in the third quarter that gave Penn State a 21-3 lead. McSorley finished 15 of 28 for 164 yards and ran for another 65 yards, a bit of redemption after his late end-zone interception against the Panthers last September halted a frantic comeback.
“I know it’s something that when I think about last season I think about last year’s game that stands out a lot,” McSorley said.
Mike Gesicki had a pair of first-quarter touchdown receptions and Barkley finished with 183 total yards and two scores as Penn State ended a two-game skid against the Panthers in front of the largest crowd to pack Beaver Stadium in nearly a decade.
Qadree Ollison rushed for 96 yards for Pitt (1-1), but the Panthers struggled to finish drives early and the Nittany Lions pulled away late. Max Browne completed 19 of 32 passes for only 138 yards and was intercepted twice before being removed late with a gash over his right eye.
Browne will remain the starter for now, though sophomore Ben DiNucci scored on a short touchdown run and led the Panthers downfield late with the Nittany Lions playing soft to protect their lead.
Pitt dominated in time of possession, holding the ball for more than 38 minutes, and outgained Penn State 342-312. Yet the Panthers needed 86 plays to reach that total compared to just 52 for the Nittany Lions. Pitt put together three 15-play drives and only scored on one of them, a 28-yard field goal in the second quarter by Alex Kessman.
“Having to drive the length of the field in a methodical way, it’s tough to do,” Browne said. “By no means did we get bullied around.”
While Pitt slogged, Penn State sprinted. Twice the Nittany Lions needed just one snap to score. McSorley found a wide-open Gesicki for an 8-yard touchdown just 2:07 into the game after Browne’s first interception. McSorley hit Barkley down the middle of the field early in the second half and Barkley went the rest of the way.
Pitt got no closer than 14 the rest of the way.
“Our offense is very explosive and that’s kind of how we were again today,” Franklin said. “I would like to see us sustain some more drives but we showed we can score at any moment.”
HE SAID IT
Franklin stresses a “one week at a time” ethos, trying to impress upon his players no single game is more important than any other. Still, he appeared to take a shot at the Panthers after Penn State evened the latest iteration of a series that dates back to 1893 at 1-1. The third game in the four-year renewal is next September at Heinz Field.
“I know last year for their win it was like the Super Bowl, but for us this was just like beating Akron,” Franklin said.
Pitt: Narduzzi downplayed the idea of a quarterback controversy but may end up having one anyway. Browne, a graduate transfer from Southern California, underwhelmed for the second consecutive week and DiNucci provides a more mobile option. Browne is averaging just 7.72 yards per completion and has been unable to generate anything downfield.
Penn St.: McSorley’s worries about the slow starts that cost the Nittany Lions in last year’s loss disappeared when Penn State scored twice in the game’s first 10 minutes. A true blowout, however, never materialized in part to McSorley’s inaccuracy. He missed wide open receivers on numerous occasions in the first half on overthrows. He’ll need to calm the jitters earlier in games going forward.
Pitt: Doesn’t get any easier next Saturday, when 10th-ranked Oklahoma State (2-0) visits Heinz Field. The Cowboys held off the Panthers 45-38 last season in Stillwater.
Penn St.: Nittany Lions get a breather before opening Big Ten play when Georgia State comes to Beaver Stadium.