clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Penn State almost dealt Pitt a crushing rivalry loss. Then the script flipped.

New, comments

The return of an old rivalry lived up to all the hype.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt beat Penn State on Saturday, 42-39, in the first game between the two teams in almost two decades. Penn State charged back from a three-touchdown deficit, but a late-game drop and a gory interception sealed the Panthers' win.

This is a huge deal for Pitt, coming in the renewal of a historic rivalry that paused 16 years ago. The team needed a win against a program that's often been its big brother in Pennsylvania, and thanks to its ground game and a wild ending on defense, that's exactly what Pitt got.

Penn State trailed, 42-39, on its final drive of the game, and the Nittany Lions converted a fourth-and-16 to set up a great chance to tie or win. But Trace McSorley threw a brutal pick on second down from Pitt's 31-yard-line, and Ryan Lewis held the ball to give Pitt one of its biggest wins in ages.

Otherwise, Pitt running back James Conner was ferocious, running over white shirts from the Panthers' first drive of the game — a 99-yard touchdown march. He ran with an authority that became typical of him when he was the ACC's 2014 offensive player of the year, before he missed all of last season and then beat Hodgkin's lymphoma.

It wasn't all rosy, even on a day when Conner ran for 117 yards on 22 carries. Conner's numbers were huge, but he coughed up a fumble in the fourth quarter with Pitt leading by a touchdown, in the shadow of its own goalposts. It required a defensive stop by Pitt to keep the Panthers four points ahead after a field goal, and things started to look pretty tense. Pitt was, to use the common parlance, Pitting.

But then, the Panthers stopped the bleeding. Conner scored on a third-down shovel pass from Nathan Peterman on the Panthers' next drive, after a long kick return set them up. And Pitt did something Pitt hasn't done a lot in the last few years: It hung on. The Nittany Lions pushed forward again after the insurance touchdown, and things looked meek at points — but Pitt didn't lose. And for a program that can always use a jolt of excitement, Pitt got it.

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley deserved much better. He scored five touchdowns on the day, despite working behind an offensive line that did, often, very little to help him. Penn State trailed at one point 28-7, but the Lions clawed their way back and managed to at least strike some doom into Pitt's minds. Unfortunately, that's all they could do.