STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – No matter how long it takes for Penn State and Pittsburgh to play again, or even if they don’t, the 100th meeting of the in-state rivals on Saturday at Beaver Stadium will be long remembered for one of the strangest finishes in the series.
There was the goal-line stand by the Nittany Lions, after the Panthers had first-and-goal at the 1. There was the decision by Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi, needing just three feet for the touchdown to have a chance to tie the game, to kick a 19-yard field goal that Alex Kessman clanged off the left upright with less than five minutes to play.
Then, there was the first time the game clock hit all zeroes, when the officials put time back on it after the Panthers made a first down and the clock did not stop. Finally, linebacker Cam Brown batted down the final Hail Mary pass in the end zone, and the 13th-ranked Nittany Lions had a hard-fought, 17-10 win before a hoarse crowd of 108,661.
Strange game, indeed, on a day that began with a 40-minute delay because of a severe weather threat.
“It’s a team game,” Lions quarterback Sean Clifford said. “That’s what it comes down to. Our defense made plays. Our running backs made plays. Our offensive line played great. Across the board, we won the game, that’s all that matters.”
As in the previous week against Buffalo, Penn State (3-0) held its opponent to one touchdown, but the Lions had trouble getting off the field against the effective passing attack of the Panthers (1-2). Junior Kenny Pickett, given time by his offensive line, completed 35 of 51 passes for 372 yards and made key throws on Pitt’s third-down and fourth-down conversions.
One of his best throws was a 29-yard, fourth-quarter completion to Taysir Mack, who outjumped two Lions defenders and stayed in bounds to give the Panthers a first-and-goal at the 1, where a touchdown and extra point would tie the game.
But, the visitors were still at the 1 after two incompletions and a called run by Pickett that gained nothing. Surprisingly, Narduzzi called on the field-goal team, and Kessman could not deliver, missing with 4 minutes, 54 seconds to play.
“You need two scores to win the football game, unless you’re playing for overtime,” said Narduzzi, whose team rushed for only 24 yards. “I don’t question that decision at all.”
Penn State head coach James Franklin didn’t second-guess.
“If they get points at that time, then the next time they get the ball, a touchdown wins the game for them,” he said. “It’s hard for me to sit here and say exactly what he was thinking, but the touchdown would have given them the win. They had confidence in their defense that they would stop us and get back on the field.”
Penn State made one first down on its ensuing possession but an incompletion on third down -- “someone ran the wrong play,” Franklin said -- led to a punt and a final possession for Pitt starting at its 16 with 1:56 and one timeout remaining.
On fourth and 12, Pickett found Mack for 28 yards to the Lions 37. He later hit Mack for 11 as the clock ticked down to inside of 10 seconds, and it mistakenly ran out after officials signaled first down. Nine seconds were put back.
“I wasn’t sure if he got the first down there or not,” linebacker Jan Johnson said. “The ref ran the clock, but it was a first down and then some time got put back on the clock. I’m not sure how that sequence worked out, but our defense out there being unfazed was great.”
On the last play, Pickett’s throw into a crowd in the end zone was batted down by Brown.
“Honestly, I just had to judge it. It was sitting up there for a while,” Brown said. “I thought first, maybe I misjudged this, but I just jumped as high as I could and reached my hand up.”
Pitt took a 10-7 lead on Vincent Davis’ 3-yard run with 2:08 left in the half, but the Lions’ Jordan Stout, who hit four more kickoffs for touchbacks and is 24 for 25 for the season, kicked a school-record 57-yard field goal with 1 second left to tie it at the break.
Penn State’s Noah Cain ran 13 yards for a touchdown with 5:50 left in the third quarter, the game’s final points. The defenses took over, but the Nittany Lions managed to stop two 10-play Pitt drives in the fourth quarter that yielded nothing.
And that was it. The Lions improved their record in the series to 53-43-4. The memories of the last game in the rivalry will have to last for a long time.