There is no question about the present. The Nittany Lions have separated themselves from the Panthers. And the gap appears to be widening. Quickly.
Trace McSorley threw for two touchdowns and ran for another to erase the memories of a painful 2016 loss and Penn State overwhelmed Pitt 51-6 on Saturday night.
Two years ago Penn State left Heinz Field on the wrong end of a thrilling 42-39 loss, a setback that ultimately cost the Nittany Lions a spot in the College Football Playoff. The feeling stuck with McSorley. In front of a sellout crowd and a national audience in prime time, the senior quarterback earned a measure of redemption.
“I think it’s something, it might have fueled me a little bit more knowing we were returning here and had an opportunity to get that bad taste out of our mouths and things like that,” said McSorley, who finished 14 of 30 for 145 yards in a steady rain. “It’s a lot sweeter, able to leave the field with a good victory tonight.”
KJ Hamler ran 32 yards for a score and hauled in a 14-yard touchdown pass from McSorley as the Nittany Lions (2-0) bounced back from an opening week scare against Appalachian State to dominate their 99th meeting with the Panthers (1-1).
Miles Sanders ran for a career-high 118 yards for the Nittany Lions, DeAndre Thompson returned a punt 39 yards for a touchdown, and Penn State limited Pitt to just 89 yards in the second half.
“We played really clutch defense,” Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said. “So I think we made some really good strides.”
Pitt, meanwhile, took a step backward. Maybe more than one. Qadree Ollison ran for 119 yards and a 13-yard score but went nowhere after halftime. Neither did the Panthers.
Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett struggled in the steady rain, completing just 9 of 18 passes for 55 yards. Pickett also ran for 30 yards, but spent most of the night under heavy pressure. He was sacked four times and took a handful of jarring hits when he was able to scramble for positive yardage.
“Ultimately, everything lays right on my chest,” Panther coach Pat Narduzzi said. “I’ll take it all. We obviously didn’t have them ready to go in any capacity: offensively, defensively or special teams.”
The series that dates back 125 years will go on hiatus after Pitt visits Beaver Stadium next September. There are no plans for it to continue — at least in the next decade — and considering how things went in the second half, that might not be a bad thing for either side.
Penn State’s margin of victory was the third-largest by either team in a series that dates to 1893. The chants of “We Are … Penn State” rang throughout the stadium in the final minutes.
Pitt trailed just 7-6 late in the second quarter when it faced fourth-and-3 at the Penn State 4. The Panthers opted not to kick a go-ahead field goal because of issues with holder Kirk Christodoulou, who mishandled a pair of snaps earlier in the half. Ollison was stopped for a three-yard loss.
“Kids want to go, I want to go, I want to score a touchdown,” Narduzzi said. “We’re playing to win. … I don’t know if we got a yard. But we just didn’t make plays. We didn’t block them good enough.”
Things got worse quickly for Christodoulou. The freshman from Australia fumbled a snap while trying to punt just before the half. Penn State recovered with 59 seconds left and McSorley found Hamler three plays later to put the Nittany Lions up 14-6 at the break.
It was all Penn State after that.
SELF DESTRUCTION SEQUENCE INITIATED
The Panthers turned the ball over three times and were flagged 14 times for 116 yards, including a holding call in the end zone that resulted in a safety and a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the occasionally volatile Narduzzi.
“I’ve never seen so many penalties in one game,” Narduzzi said. “It starts with my 15 yarder. But 14 penalties . embarrassing. There were some good calls, too. I’m not saying the officiating was bad. We just had some stuff that just snowballed on us. It starts with me.”
Penn State: The Nittany Lions have found a capable replacement for Saquon Barkley. Sanders spent two years patiently waiting for his turn and he seems more than equal to the task. His numbers would have been even more impressive if not for an illegal block in the back in the first half that nullified a significant chunk of what would have been an 80-yard gain.
Pitt: For all of Pickett’s moxie, he is going to need receivers who can get open to take some of the pressure off the running game. He completed just four passes — for 34 yards — to his wide outs.
The Nittany Lions slid three spot last week after needing overtime to escape Appalachian State. They could possibly tick back up a bit for the way they completely shut down Pitt in the second half.
Penn State: Nittany Lions host Kent State next Saturday.
Pitt: Opens ACC play next Saturday when Georgia Tech visits.
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