The past 99 contests in the Keystone Classic between Penn State and Pittsburgh, which began in 1893, have seen classics, blowouts and everything in between. But those who want to see more of that could be waiting a very, very long time for that to happen.
Saturday’s affair from Happy Valley might be the last in the storied rivalry for a while, because between the schools playing their resident cupcakes over the next few years and the Big Ten and ACC playing eight and nine conference games, respectively, there just isn’t any room in the schedule.
When asked earlier this week about the in-state rivalry possibly ending, Penn State head coach James Franklin commented on the uneven conference slate with the schools, but also remained optimistic
"We are not closing the door," Franklin said. "We are open to a bunch of different discussions, whether that is home-and-home, whether that is neutral site, whatever that may be.”
In the Centennial battle, which was delayed for 40 minutes due to a lightning storm, the Nittany Lions and Panthers exchanged pleasantries, with the home team holding on to a lackluster, sloppy 17–10 win.
Penn State again got off to a slow start and was pinned near its own goal line on its second possession, but produced the game’s first big play when running back Journey Brown took a handoff and scampered 85 yards to the Pittsburgh 12-yard line. Devyn Brown scored two plays later on a three-yard TD run.
Pittsburgh then decided to ditch its running game, which gained 24 yards the entire game, and rely on quarterback Kenny Pickett.
On an 18-play, 85-yard drive that resulted in a field goal, the Panthers used 9:15 of the clock as Pickett threw 14 times, mostly on short to intermediate routes. They took a 10–3 lead on their next possession, when A.J. Davis went in for a three-yard score.
Penn State tied the game at 10 going into halftime when Jordan Stout nailed a school record 57-yard field goal.
The third quarter has been the crucial time for the Nittany Lions so far this season, and they put their halftime adjustments to use once again.
In the first half, Pittsburgh used a mix of a four-man rush and timely blitzes to rattle Clifford, sacking him three times and knocking him down a half-dozen other times.
Clifford used quick passes to stave off the pass rush, which opened up a mostly stalled running game. Noah Cain’s 13-yard touchdown capped off an 88-yard, 13-yard drive that gave Penn State the lead for good.
Clifford went 14 for 30 for 222 yards, the majority coming on the only three plays that went for 20 or more yards all day.
Pittsburgh’s chance to tie the score came in the middle of the fourth quarter. After a three-and-out, the Panthers decided to go for it from their own 44. Pickett (35 for 51, 372 yards) then executed a beautiful play-action pass finding Nakia Griffin-Stewart wide open for 36 yards to keep the drive alive. Another 29-yard pass to receiver Taysir Mack in between two defenders got the ball to the one-yard line.
But three plays from the one resulted in no yards, and Alex Kessman’s 19-yard field goal attempt clanked off the left upright, wasting a 10-play drive.
Pittsburgh has increasingly become one-dimensional this season, with the run-based offense seen in years past nowhere to be found. It doesn’t get any easier for the reigning Coastal Division champions, as next week UCF comes to town.
Penn State can be happy that it won its first three games, but the Nittany Lions have issues that need to be corrected, especially if they want to compete in the Big Ten East.
The offense has had trouble at times protecting Clifford, and hasn’t had the consistency needed in the running game to maintain drives if Clifford struggles like he did against Pittsburgh. In the past two games, Penn State has only converted six of its last 22 third-down chances. Fortunately, there is time to work out those problems, as they are off next week before traveling to Maryland.