James Conner, Pittsburgh hold off Penn State in thrilling renewal of storied rivalry

James Conner led a potent Pitt ground game to negate Penn State RB Saquon Barkley's prodigious efforts in a sensational renewal of this intra-state rivalry.
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Penn State staged a valiant comeback after going down 28–7 in the first half, but Pittsburgh held on for a thrilling 42–39 win in front of 69,983 at Heinz Field. Penn State receiver DaeSean Hamilton dropped a sure touchdown that would have given the Nittany Lions a late lead, helping to allow the Panthers to hold on for their second win of the season.

Pitt running back James Conner finished with 117 yards on 22 carries with one touchdown, overshadowing the standout performance from Penn State sophomore running back Saquon Barkley, who scored five total touchdowns on the afternoon. Here are three thoughts from an eventful afternoon in Pittsburgh on the first meeting of these in-state rivals since 2000.

1.James Conner and the Pitt rushing attack will be tough for anyone to handle

The Panthers scorched Penn State in the first half, racking up over 170 rushing yards in the first 20 minutes of the game and finishing with 341 total. While Conner shouldered most of the load with 22 carries, fullback George Aston plowed through the Penn State defensive line for two short-range touchdowns and quarterback Nathan Peterman showed tremendous pocket awareness with 52 yards on eight carries, including one 30-yard scamper.

Pitt’s effectiveness running the ball made Peterman’s life passing significantly easier. The senior finished with three touchdowns despite passing for a modest 11 for 15 for 91 yards. The Panthers averaged close to seven yards per play until late in the fourth quarter.

Despite losing offensive coordinator Jim Chaney to Georgia in the off-season, Pittsburgh’s offensive line and rushing game dominated Penn State for most of the afternoon. Once ACC play starts, Conner and a mean offensive front should give several teams trouble.

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2. Saquon Barkley is a stud … despite his offensive line

Penn State’s offensive line looks like a subpar unit for a third consecutive season, but Barkley may cover up some of those wounds with his incredible talent. This year’s crop of college football running backs may be the best in recent memory, and Barkley should be mentioned among the best of those players. The sophomore star finished with 85 rushing yards on 20 carries and scored five total touchdowns, including a 40-yard scoring reception.

While many of the top running backs—Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and LSU’s Leonard Fournette to name a few—grab highlights because of their big-play abilities, Barkley may be most fun to watch in red-zone situations because of his outstanding vision. All of his touchdown rushes were three yards or fewer, but each was a stellar example of how to run in a short-yardage situation.

3. This game should be played more often

A hair under 70,000 people showed up, and the word was that it was the most attended sporting event in Pittsburgh history. Now that Penn State is no longer the unassailable marquee program in Pennsylvania (heck, it needs to avenge a loss against Temple next week), this game should be played every season.