STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – They put up 33 points against a team that might or might not be a rival (more on that in a moment), and won by 19.
And, well, that wasn’t quite enough. Not to them.
“One of the weird things about today, when we got in the locker room, we felt as an offense we didn’t play our best football — that we had chances to put more points on the board,” Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley said after the fourth-ranked Lions beat Pitt 33-14 on Saturday afternoon (see Observations).
There were missed opportunities, momentary struggles, long stretches when McSorley and Co. were marooned on the sidelines while the Panthers controlled the ball. At the same time, the Lions (2-0) had two one-play touchdown drives, and none of their five scoring marches lasted longer than 2:43.
“It was not like a dejected feeling,” McSorley said of the postgame mood, “because we got the win. It was one of those where, like, it didn’t feel like one where we put 33 points on the board. It’s something you like to see, almost, because you put 33 points on the board, guys are whining and down on themselves because we expected more. That’s something that I think is kind of a silver lining for us, that we can keep pushing toward that.”
McSorley finished his day 15 for 28 for 164 and three touchdowns, with one interception. He improved as he went along (9 for 13, 120 yards in the second half), which perhaps stands to reason, given that he was still pondering last year’s meeting when he took the field – one that ended with Pitt hanging on for a 42-39 victory, when he was intercepted in the end zone with 1:15 left.
“That was something, when I think of last year’s game, that stands out a lot,” he said.
As for the larger debate — the rivalry-or-not-a-rivalry discussion that has been beaten to death — coach James Franklin rekindled it during his postgame remarks by saying, “I know last year for their win it was like the Super Bowl, but for us this was just like beating Akron (by a 52-0 count in the opener).”
That dropped a few jaws in the media roo and led to the inevitable follow-up question about how such a statement might play in Pittsburgh.
“I’ve been saying for two years that each win is like the Super Bowl for us,” he said. “You can interpret it however you want. Last week, we beat Akron and it was a great win. This week, we beat Pittsburgh and it was a great win. This win is no more significant than last week.”
Then there was the take of safety Marcus Allen, who contributed a game-high 12 tackles and a safety to Saturday’s effort.
“It’s one game at time,” he said. “We approached this game like every other game, but no one’s naïve. Guys had, like, grudges, a chip on their shoulder, coming into this game.”
The crowd of 109,898, the seventh-largest in Beaver Stadium history and the largest since 2009, was in full froth as well. McSorley had a look around as he emerged from the south tunnel beforehand, something he said he always does.
“Today it was one of those you walked out (and said), ‘Man there’s a lot of people here,’ ” he said.
He threw the first of two touchdown passes to tight end Mike Gesicki after Grant Haley’s interception four plays into the game, then found Gesicki for a 10-yard TD on the Lions’ third possession. But McSorley was just 6 for 15 for 44 yards and a pick in the first half, and as Franklin said, missing “some throws … that he normally doesn’t.”
McSorley admitted to being “just a little bit jittery” — that his feet weren’t settled, that he had a hard time finding his groove.
“I think just kind of the emotions of everything coming into today got the best of me at the beginning,” he said.
Then there was the matter of Pitt’s ball-hoggery. The Panthers’ first-half advantage in time of possession was 21:51-8:09, but they nonetheless trailed, 14-3 — something that called to mind a game PSU’s great 1994 team played against Northwestern.
That day the first-half time advantage belonged to the Wildcats, 24:21-5:39. The score? Penn State 38, Northwestern 3. The final was 45-17, and someone was left to marvel afterward about a Lions team that seemingly didn’t even need the ball to score.
It kind of seemed that way Saturday, too. Penn State added to its lead courtesy of McSorley’s 46-yard TD pass to Saquon Barkley early in the third quarter — a play on which Barkley found himself singled up against linebacker Saleem Brightwell – and scored again when Barkley plowed eight yards into the end zone on the first play of the fourth quarter.
That made it 28-6. The Panthers crept within 1 but could get no closer.
Barkley was solid — 14 carries for 88 yards, four catches for 45 — but the Lions were outgained 342-312 and out-possessed, 38:20-21:40.
The latter stat, Franklin said, is “not as big of a factor as it’s been in the past, but for us we are mainly worried about the scoreboard.”
And in that regard, Saturday was a rousing success. But these guys want more. Always more.