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Even Not At Their Best, Nittany Lions Still Better Than Most, And Pitt In 33-14 Win

on September 09, 2017 9:10 PM

Penn State's opening week victory over Akron was proof that the Nittany Lion offense can operate at an elite level.

Week two was proof that it doesn't have to.

And that may have been some of the best news some 109,898 Penn State fans got on Saturday afternoon as the Nittany Lions picked up a 33-14 victory over Pitt. Penn State wasn't great, but it was good enough, and when this offense is just "good enough" that's still a lot better than most teams on their best days.

Consider this, the Nittany Lions scored 31 points on offense with just 21 minutes of possession. After an opening four second one-play scoring drive following Grant Haley's interception early in the game, Pitt sat on the ball and let the clock slowly bleed.

The Panthers seemed all too aware that they weren't equipped to a win a shootout, if nothing else all too aware that Penn State couldn't score if it didn't have the ball. So it was a game of keep away, in the first half Pitt won that particular game, hanging on to the ball for nearly 23 minutes.

If not for the early interception Pitt could have found itself trailing just 7-3 at the break, but Mike Gesicki's 10-yard catch and run capped off a 62-yard drive in the first quarter to put Penn State up 14-0. An eventual Pitt field goal pulled the game within 11 points at the half. In between, a tortuous eight minute drive by Pitt that ended with a punt of all things, sucking the life out of an otherwise energized crowd.

Meanwhile Penn State's usually rhythmic offense sat on the sideline. For this group the more snaps the better, the more drives the more points. Six first half drives buttressed by long Pitt possessions did little to give Penn State its usual offensive momentum. Trace McSorely wasn't sharp, the offensive line overwhelmed by Pitt players happy to camp out in the box and wait for Saquon Barkley. Penn State's offense always seemed poised to strike, and yet it never really did.

"I think we were a little off," James Franklin said after the game. "I think Trace missed some throws early in the game that he normally doesn’t but we were able to kind of get him involved in the running game early on, which I think settled us down and we made some plays. I think we were just off and we missed some throws early in the game that we normally hit."

All told by the half Pitt had run 22 more offensive plays than Penn State and had just 42 more yards to show for it. Nothing the Panthers were doing looked particularly threatening but it was keeping Pitt in the game and Penn State off the scoreboard.

It made the start of the second half an interesting sequence for a team not 12 months removed from being one of the best in the nation at the final 30 minutes of play. Against Akron there wasn't much urgency to do anything so the Nittany Lions continued to plod along.

But this game, a score or two would put pressure on Pitt to become much more the participants than the survivors and Penn State's five-play 27-yard drive may have ended in a punt, but it also featured two long Barkley runs and a far more familiar looking attack. 

The next drive, just a single play, 46-yard pass to Barkley.

Two drives later it was a six-play, 78-yard campaign over 2:32 that made Penn State look the part a dominating Top 5 team. Suddenly it was 28-6 and the Nittany Lion offense was sitting on four touchdowns and a comfortable lead to show for it. All in spite of an otherwise slow start.

Pitt would score again, but the Panthers never threatened to do much more than they had all day and Penn State never threatened to turn now routine win into a tense final few minutes.

By the time the clock hit zero the box score would read out as a fairly unremarkable game. Penn State managed 312 yards of offense while McSorley had one of his more forgettable outings going 15-of-28 for 164-yards while still managing three touchdowns. Saquon Barkley put up two scores of his own with 183 all-purpose yards, but even he lacked any of his usual electric plays.

And that's really the good news for Penn State on Saturday. Facing a team more capable than it gets credit for with a game plan to slow Penn State down, the Nittany Lions worked through a day where things didn't quite click and still managed 33 points.

Only time will tell if they can get away with it in Big Ten play, but if Penn State's worst days result in 33 points, the Nittany Lions are still going to like their chances more often than not.

"It just lets us know we didn't even play our best game and we still dropped that many points," DaeSean Hamilton said after the game. "It just means that if we play our best game and our defense and special teams play their best games we can put up 60 or 70. We left a few touchdowns out there, we left a few drives out there and things like that, but if we play a complete team like we should have today, then we'll be good." 

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