STATE COLLEGE — If you think Pitt and Penn State should play every year forever, imagine how Pat Narduzzi must feel.
If the series is ending — and it is, at least for a while — Narduzzi and his Panthers have to hate it ending like this.
Penn State survived Pitt 17-10 Saturday before 108,661 at Beaver Stadium. Penn State’s defense won it by utterly smothering the Panthers’ ground game and by coming up with a heroic goal-line stand.
But that stand was just three plays, instead of four. On fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, down 17-10 with 4:54 left, Narduzzi opted to try a field goal.
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. (AP) — The 126-year rivalry between No. 13 Penn State and Pittsburgh is…
It missed. Alex Kessman banged it off the left upright from 19 yards out.
“I thought the field goal was a good play there,” Narduzzi said after the game. “What it comes down to, is you need two scores to win the game. I don’t question that call at all.”
Pitt had more total yards (although barely so), first downs and time of possession. The Panthers had just 24 rushing yards, but were able to move the ball and the chains with a short, underneath passing game and occasional big catch by wideout Taysir Mack (12 catches, 125 yards).
Penn State struggled on third down, both sides of the ball, for the third straight week. Its passing game sputtered. But the Lions did run the ball for 191 yards, 5.2 per carry, and seemed on the verge of taking control once or twice.
They never did. It was a physical, entertaining and in some ways old-school battle, and the last 8:43 will be remembered, and debated, for a long time.
Pitt took over at its own 19, which became its own 34 when Penn State's Dan Chisena drilled Pitt returner Maurice Ffrench an apparent instant after Ffrench caught a punt, but was called for kick-catch interference.
Three plays later the Panthers faced fourth-and-1 at the 43, and called time with 7:38 left. From a very heavy formation with 11 Nittany Lions crowding the line of scrimmage, Narduzzi, or his offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, dialed up a play-action throw over the middle to tight end for 36 yards to the Penn State 21.
It was the call of a coach, and a team, playing boldly to win. Hold that thought.
Soon Mack was outdueling Penn State safety Lamont Wade for a leaping grab at the 1. As in, first-and-the tying (or winning?) touchdown from the 1.
On first down, Cam Brown flushed Pitt QB Kenny Pickett from the pocket for a throwaway. One second down, Pickett tried to run it in, and that worked as it had all afternoon.
On third down Brown — who was terrific, as were his LB mates Micah Parsons and Jan Johnson — had Pickett fleeing his spot, and throwing wildly, one more time.
Fourth down. Five minutes left.
“We thought about it,” Narduzzi said. “We thought too many damn times and wasted a timeout at one point. We have to do a better job, as coaches, communicating what we want.”
(No, I’m not sure what that means, either.)
Narduzzi admitted his playcalling options were limited.
“Just look at the success we had running the ball against that front seven,” he said, meaning none.
“If we go for it and don't get it,” he continued, “it's like, why didn't you kick the field goal, because you still need two scores to win the game.”
Pitt got the ball back, with 1:56 left, and drove to the Penn State 26 before running out of time.
So Narduzzi will be roasted in the media, social and otherwise. Penn State will head into a bye week 3-0, but with a lot of work to do.
And a rivalry will go from hot to cold.