Penn State runs away from Pitt, 51-6
Rain fell steadily upon Heinz Field on Saturday night. The winning team handled it. The loser did not.
But that was only half the story of Pitt's 51-6 loss to Penn State, an embarrassment of historic proportions.
At first, the game hinged on a punter's inability to catch the football with wet hands. Later, however, Pitt's defense and special teams fell apart, and this time the rain wasn't to blame.
Pitt allowed Penn State to score five touchdowns after halftime. The Nittany Lions controlled the line of scrimmage in the second half while running back Miles Sanders finished with 118 yards on 16 carries. It was the first 100-yard game for the Woodland Hills graduate.
A game that had been highly anticipated turned into a runaway in the second half in front of a sellout crowd of 68,400. It was Pitt's worst loss to Penn State since 1968 (65-9) and worst ever at Heinz Field.
"We obviously didn't have them ready to go in any capacity," Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said.
It was difficult to determine what was worse — how easily Penn State scored in the second half or how sloppily Pitt played through four quarters.
Pitt committed 14 penalties for a loss of 116 yards, and one particularly choppy sequence in the third quarter defined the Panthers' humiliation.
After Penn State took a 21-6 lead in the third quarter, Pitt was called for an illegal block on the kickoff and a false start on the first play. Then, running back Darrin Hall was dropped for a 3-yard loss to the 1 and offensive left tackle Stefano Millin was called for holding in the end zone, rewarding Penn State with a safety.
Even Narduzzi was called for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when he complained too loudly to officials that he wasn't getting enough time to complete a substitution.
"I've never seen so many penalties in one game. It starts with my 15-yarder. Fourteen penalties. Embarrassing," he said. "Some good calls, too. I'm not saying the officiating was bad."
Pitt redshirt freshman punter Kirk Christodoulou, playing in his second collegiate game, replaced regular holder Jake Scarton, who was injured last week, Narduzzi said. He struggled to hold on to the football throughout the first half and didnt have much luck when he did catch it.
He averaged only 33.7 yards on six punts, and his 36-yard line drive in the third quarter gave his coverage team no time to set up. It was returned 39 yards for a touchdown by Penn State's DeAndre Thompkins.
In the first half, Christodoulou bobbled a snap on an extra-point try, had trouble putting down another on a field-goal miss and fumbled a punt snap that set up a Penn State touchdown with 26 seconds left in the first half.
The mistakes forced Pitt to play from behind all night, wasting running back Qadree Ollison's 119-yard rushing effort — the first time he surpassed the century mark since 2015. After Pitt went three-and-out on the opening possession, Christodoulou punted only 32 yards to the Penn State 37.
Penn State moved 63 yards on three plays to take a 7-0 lead. The decisive play was wide receiver's KJ Hamler's 32-yard touchdown run on a end-around sweep.
Pitt responded with Ollison's 13-yard touchdown run on a draw play, but the extra-point try failed when Christodoulou dropped the snap and was tackled trying to run toward the goal line.
Christodoulou also had trouble putting down the snap in the second quarter, when kicker Alex Kessman missed a 35-yard field goal try.
At that point, Narduzzi had seen enough from his backup holder. After defensive end Rashad Weaver recovered a fumble by Penn State's Ricky Slade on the Nittany Lions' 31 in the second quarter, Pitt moved to the 4, facing fourth-and-3 and trailing 7-6.
Instead of trying to kick a field goal and taking the lead, Narduzzi opted to go for the touchdown and Ollison was dropped for a 3-yard loss.
Narduzzi said the decision partially was to tied to an attempt to reverse momentum and a loss of trust in his holder.
"We muffed an extra point, bobbled a field goal, and you know what, we need to score touchdowns," he said. "We can't get down there and just settle for field goals. The field was soggy, and not a good surface to kick in anyway."
Said quarterback Kenny Pickett: "Definitely a momentum shift. We punch it in there, we're feeling prety good."
But, with the exception of Ollison, Pitt's offense was out of sync all night.
Pickett completed nine of 18 passs for 55 yards and an interception. Penn State sacked him four times.
"Kenny didn't look like himself in the pocket, in my opinion," Narduzzi said.
Asked if Pickett was a bit skittish, Narduzzi said, "We gave up four sacks. He obviously felt something in there. That guy was scrambling and making plays, but we still weren't throwing the ball. He was making it all with his feet."
Pickett had no interest in listing all the reasons for failure, but the offense was hampered by poor field position, starting seven possessions inside the 17.
"There is no excuse for it," he said. "Multiple things. I'm not going to sit here and point fingers or make excuses. When you're backed up a lot, it's tough to get your offense rolling."
Christodoulou's third gaffe of the half gave Penn State momentum going into the second half. He dropped a punt snap late in the second quarter, Jarvis Miller recovered for Penn State on the Pitt 35 and Penn State quickly capitalized when McSorley hit Hamler on a 14-yard touchdown pass to give Penn State a 14-6 lead at halftime.
McSorley, who completed 14 of 30 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns, threw and ran for touchdowns in the second half. Mark Allen ran 4 yards for a touchdown with 6:17 left. Backup quarterback Sean Clifford ended the scoring by throwing a 34-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Polk with 4:21 left to set the final 45-point Pitt deficit.
"It was a punch to the face," defensive end Rashad Weaver said, looking at the totality of the damage. "We didn't respond to the punch to the face like you should."
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Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at email@example.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.