Pitt opts for late FG try while down 7, loses to Penn State
UNIVERSITY PARK — If you left Beaver Stadium on Saturday wanting more from the 100th, and possibly final, game in the Pitt-Penn State series, you weren’t paying attention.
Penn State’s 17-10 victory in front of a crowd of 108,661 had it all, including a lightning storm that delayed the start by 40 minutes.
Turned out, it was worth the wait.
Not the least of the events that will have Pitt fans chattering for days was a questionable decision by Pat Narduzzi, who has lost faith in his running game.
Trailing by seven, Pitt’s coach decided against a fourth-down conversion attempt from the Penn State 1-yard line with 4 minutes, 54 seconds left, opting for a 19-yard field-goal attempt Alex Kessman missed.
Narduzzi will take heat for that decision at least until the next Pitt victory, but there was plenty for both teams to think about and perhaps even savor as they prepare for the final nine games of the season.
Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett, who had a career day with personal highs in completions (35), attempts (51) and passing yards (372), summed it up well.
“Chippy game,” he said. “Crowd yelling stuff. We’re yelling back. We’re going at with the players on the field. It was an entertaining game.”
Defense carried the day, however, and the difference was No. 13 Penn State (3-0) made more plays on that side of the ball. Linebackers Cam Brown, Jan Johnson and defensive end Shaka Toney recorded sacks, and linebacker Micah Parsons led his team with nine tackles, two behind the line of scrimmage.
The result was Pitt’s sixth consecutive game without scoring a touchdown after halftime, dating to last season.
“We need to make more explosive plays in the short passing game,” Pickett said. “We got guys in space. Let’s go do something with it and put it in the end zone. We have all these yards, and we’re not getting any points out of it.”
Still, Taysir Mack caught a personal-best 12 passes for 125 yards, including a 29-yarder on the decisive fourth-quarter possession. Mack outjumped Penn State cornerback Donovan Johnson and fell at the 1, barely missing the pylon that would have given Pitt the tying touchdown.
Earlier in that drive, Narduzzi gambled on fourth-and-1 from Pitt’s 43, and Pickett hit tight end Nakia Griffin-Stewart for a 36-yard gain.
Pickett said Iowa tried the same play unsuccessfully against Penn State.
“They actually overthrew it. We ended up hitting it,” he said. “There’s no safety in the middle of the field. Everyone comes up.”
That play and many others prompted Narduzzi to call Pickett’s effort “all-conference.”
“I don’t know if Kenny can play any better,” he said. “He made some throws that you guys have not seen him make before. He threw it on time. He’s throwing in rhythm.”
Yet, there was plenty wrong with the way Pitt played, and that’s why it will take a losing record (1-2) into next Saturday’s game against another nationally ranked team, No. 17 Central Florida (3-0).
The game ended with Pickett throwing two incompletions after moving Pitt to the Penn State 26, but the most significant takeaway is the fact Pitt has no ground game. That especially irritates an old-school coach such as Narduzzi and explains why Pitt did not hand the ball to its running backs after Mack’s catch.
“Just look at the (lack of) success we had running the ball on that (Penn State) front seven,” he said.
For the record, running backs A.J. Davis, Vincent Davis and V’Lique Carter carried 14 times for a total of 10 yards. The leading rusher was little-used wide receiver Shockey Jacques-Louis, who gained 9 yards on a jet sweep, his only carry of the day.
Then there’s the matter of the defense that recorded three sacks of Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford, who was 14 of 30 for 222 yards. But it also allowed an 85-yard run by Journey Brown from the 3 that set up Penn State’s first-quarter touchdown.
“A little bit of missed fits,” defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman said. “We have to do a better job of shedding (blocks) and making a play in the clutch time like that.”
Narduzzi didn’t mention his team stretching its streak without a turnover to five games in a row, including the last two of 2018. But he also wasn’t as happy as you might think after his team allowed only 17 points.
Penn State scored the decisive touchdown on Noah Cain’s 13-yard run with 5:50 left in the third quarter. It came at the end of a 13-play, 88-yard drive.
“Early, I was (pleased). In the second half, I wasn’t,” Narduzzi said.
Overall, Narduzzi was proud of his team’s effort in, perhaps, the most hostile environment it will confront all season.
“I feel bad for our kids. I love those guys in there,” he said. “We’re resilient. We’ll bounce back.”
And there is plenty of time for that to happen.
“It will take a while to digest,” Twyman said of the loss. “But I still understand the big picture.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .