For the second consecutive week, the Penn State offense started out slowly. For the second consecutive week, it found its step in the second half en route to a win. But unlike in Week 1, when the Nittany Lions defense let Appalachian State threaten, against Pitt, it held strong. In Week 2, with a 51–6 victory over a Power Five opponent, Penn State got its statement win and looked the part of the No. 13 team in the country—if not better.
A year ago, Penn State coach James Franklin compared beating Pitt to beating Akron (a MAC team that went 7-7 a season ago). Saturday night’s rivalry game was the penultimate in the matchup, which will end after next fall’s game in State College, and its result backed up Franklin’s insult. After missing the College Football Playoff despite having the credentials in 2016, Penn State has proven it wants to do anything it can to avoid such an outcome again—including beefing up its nonconference slate. No matter that Pitt is in the ACC; Penn State wants to play at the level that it can do better, beat better teams. Against Pitt, Penn State suggested it might be able to—even if its first formidable opponent won’t come until Ohio State in three weeks.
On Saturday night, Penn State proved the 38 points it allowed Appalachian State a week ago might be an anomaly. Even as Trace McSorley and company put up just 14 points in a wet, sloppy first half in Pittsburgh, the Penn State defense held its own. It wasn’t that Pitt didn’t threaten, but rather that Penn State capitalized on mistakes and played aggressive defense, picking off a pass as the Panthers drove into Nittany Lions territory, forcing a turnover on downs and then recovering a fumble—three key plays that kept the game close at halftime, when Penn State led, 14–6. In the game’s third quarter, defensive coordinator Brent Pry’s unit kicked into another gear, and Pitt didn’t reach positive net yardage in the second half until more than halfway through the fourth quarter.
On the offensive side of the ball, McSorley distributed passes to nine targets, finishing the day with 145 passing yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 36 yards and a third-quarter score. Penn State’s running backs, led by junior Miles Sanders, racked up another 175 rushing yards. In a game in which rain would have been an easy excuse for a low-scoring night, Penn State proved it could adapt, pounding the ball on the ground and averaging 6.4 yards per carry as a team and converting two Pitt turnovers into touchdowns on the resulting drives. The game extended Penn State’s streak to six games with at least 35 points, and even if it hasn’t yet put together a complete offensive game, Saturday’s second half more than made up for its first, during which the Nittany Lions committed two fumbles.
Once Penn State’s offense started churning, though, it didn’t let up until the game’s end. The Nittany Lions kept on scoring—and scoring and scoring—piling on two touchdowns in the game’s final seven minutes, while already up by more than three scores as the Pitt offense remained stagnant. Franklin seemed as if he were looking to make the grandest statement possible to the playoff committee when it debates the value of Penn State’s nonconference victories in a few weeks, which was a reasonable reaction. What wasn’t: With exactly one minute left on the clock, referees ruled that Penn State running back Ricky Slade fumbled near midfield. Franklin’s team had a 45-point lead at the time—and the coach challenged the ruling on the field.
The rain kept pouring. Referees confirmed it: Slade fumbled. Franklin looked silly—but Penn State still emerged from the night looking like a contender.