No. 4 Penn State-Pittsburgh observations: Nittany Lions avenge last season's loss

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No. 4 Penn State-Pittsburgh observations: Nittany Lions avenge last season's loss

BOX SCORE

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Trace McSorley threw three touchdown passes as No. 4 Penn State beat Pitt 33-14 on Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium.

McSorley overcame a slow start to go 15 for 28 for 164 yards, as PSU improved to 2-0. He also threw an interception.

The first two of his scoring strikes went to tight end Mike Gesicki, who has four TD receptions this season. The other went to Saquon Barkley, who caught four passes for 45 yards in all. He also rushed 14 times for 88 yards and a touchdown.

Backup quarterback Ben DiNucci scored Pitt’s touchdown on a three-yard run with 10:09 left in the game. Alex Kessman added a pair of field goals for the Panthers (1-1).

• McSorley had a rough first half against a Pitt secondary that finished next-to-last in the FBS in passing yardage allowed last year (333.2) and yielded 311 yards through the air in an overtime victory over Youngstown State in its season opener. The Panthers also continue to be without suspended safety Jordan Whitehead. Didn’t matter in the early going. McSorley, often under pressure, was wild high most of the half, going 6 for 15 for 44 yards, and saw his last-second Hail Mary picked by Dane Jackson.

• McSorley went 9 for 13 for 120 yards in the second half, including his 46-yard scoring pass to Barkley in the third quarter. On that play McSorley found his running back single-covered by Saleem Brightwell down the middle. Barkley collected the pass and ran untouched to the end zone.

• Barkley, renowned for his work in the weight room, powered through tacklers while scoring from eight yards out on the first play of the fourth quarter.

• Lions coach James Franklin had identified Panthers’ wide receiver Quadree Henderson as a potential “game-wrecker” in the days leading up to the game, but PSU bottled him up. Henderson, who generated 201 all-purpose yards in Pitt’s 42-39 victory last year, managed 33. He was notably tackled by Nick Scott and Garrett Taylor for losses of seven and six yards on respective first-half punt returns.

• Max Browne had somehow emerged as USC’s starting quarterback to start the 2016 season, only to lose the job to redshirt freshman Sam Darnold before the fourth game — the same Sam Darnold who torched Penn State in the Rose Bowl, and is now regarded as a Heisman candidate. Browne followed the graduate-transfer route to Pitt but, in his second start, threw two first-half interceptions. The first, an overthrow gathered in by PSU cornerback Grant Haley, came four plays into the game and led to the first of McSorley’s TD passes to Gesicki, an eight-yarder.

• The Panthers rushed for 50 of their 70 first-half yards on their last possession before halftime, a 15-play, 77-yard march culminating in Alex Kessman’s 28-yard field goal. Pitt ran 46 plays to PSU’s 24 in the first half, and controlled the ball for 21:51 to Penn State’s 8:09, but trailed 14-3 at the break.

• Pitt made good use of the shovel pass all game long, but particularly on its nine-play, 75-yard TD drive in the fourth quarter. Qadree Ollison took one 30 yards, and Browne found tight end Matt Flanagan for eight on another.

• DiNucci entered the game on third-and-goal at the 3, after Browne lost his helmet on the previous play and by rule had to depart for one play. DiNucci skirted left end to score, then threw yet another shovel pass to Ollison for the two-point conversion, cutting Penn State’s lead to 28-14.

• Besides his early interception, Haley had his first career sack to end Pitt’s second possession. He also combined with defensive end Shareef Miller and safety Nick Scott to stop Henderson for a three-yard loss on a second-and-goal snap in the third quarter. Pitt wound up settling for Kessman’s second field goal.

• Safety Marcus Allen recorded a safety with 5:53 left in the game, beating the block of Jaryd Jones-Smith to tackle running back Darrin Hall in the end zone, after he gathered in a pass from Browne.

No 2. Penn State vs. No. 19 Michigan: Defensive struggle with huge stakes

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No 2. Penn State vs. No. 19 Michigan: Defensive struggle with huge stakes

No. 2 Penn State (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) vs. No. 19 Michigan (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten)
Beaver Stadium, State College
Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ABC

Scouting Penn State
The second-ranked Nittany Lions were idle last week, after beating Northwestern, 31-7, on Oct. 7, as Trace McSorley went 25 for 34 for 245 yards and two touchdowns. McSorley, taking advantage of a defense stacked in an attempt to limit the effectiveness of star running back Saquon Barkley, completed a school-record 15 straight passes in one stretch. Barkley, while held to 75 yards on the ground, did break off a 53-yard touchdown run, one of two scores he had in the game. He leads the nation in all-purpose yards per game (217.0). The Lions, who are also atop the nation in scoring defense (9.0), are led on that side of the ball by linebacker Jason Cabinda and safety Marcus Allen with 40 and 35 tackles, respectively. Fourteen players have had a hand in a sack, and 26 have been part of a tackle for loss.

Scouting Michigan
The No. 19 Wolverines beat Indiana 27-20 in overtime last week, on a 25-yard run by Karan Higdon. Higdon finished with 25 carries for 200 yards and three TDs, all career highs, and to date has rushed for 401 yards (5.7 a carry). Quarterback John O’Korn, who has taken over for the injured Wilton Speight, was just 10 for 20 for 58 yards against the Hoosiers. He has clicked on 54.9 percent of his throws, for 563 yards and a touchdown, and has been picked off four times. UM has allowed the fewest yards per game in the FBS this season (223.8), and while middle linebacker Devin Bush is fourth in the Big Ten in tackles (49) and second in sacks (5), the key to the Wolverines’ D is Maurice Hurst, an eyeblink-quick defensive tackle.

History
Michigan leads the all-time series 13-7 and has won the last three meetings. The Wolverines routed the Lions last year in Ann Arbor, 49-10, in the most one-sided game ever between the two teams. PSU has gone 15-1 since.

Storyline to watch
It’s pretty simple: In a game that has “defensive struggle” written all over it, which offense can gain traction? And which team can avoid a killer mistake? 

What’s at stake
A PSU victory sets up a showdown against No. 6 Ohio State next weekend in Columbus.

Prediction
Penn State 21, Michigan 13.

No. 2 Penn State vs. No. 19 Michigan: This time, Lions favored in 'whiteout' game

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No. 2 Penn State vs. No. 19 Michigan: This time, Lions favored in 'whiteout' game

This team is back. That team is back. The practice of proclaiming that a struggling traditional college football power has returned to elite status after a big win is fraught with false steps.

The truth is that a return to glory can rarely be narrowed down to a single game. But if there ever was a "they're back" moment in college football that turned out to be real, it was on Oct. 22, 2016, in State College, Pennsylvania.

That night, unranked Penn State — a month removed from getting demolished at Michigan and three weeks after an overtime escape against Minnesota that had Nittany Lions fans booing the home team — beat No. 2 Ohio State in a Beaver Stadium whiteout. For the first time under coach James Franklin, Happy Valley was euphoric about Penn State football.

The Nittany Lions have been one of the best teams in the country since.

One year after that victory, the Nittany Lions have another whiteout scheduled and another Big Ten power visiting for a nationally televised game. The difference is that it will be no upset if No. 2 Penn State (6-0) beats No. 19 Michigan (5-1) on Saturday night.

The Wolverines have one of the best defenses in the country, but a lethargic offense (86th in the nation). Penn State looks like a College Football Playoff team right now with a Heisman Trophy contender in running back Saquon Barkley, a top-25 offense (6.49 yards per play) and a top-five defense (4.01 ypp).

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called Penn State "a well-built team."

"They're really good everywhere," he said.

It's easy to point to last year's Ohio State game as a turning point for Penn State in the post-Joe Paterno era, but the humbling loss to Michigan was also notable. The Nittany Lions were banged up on defense and still working out the kinks of a new offense, but at that moment they looked light years from being able to consistently compete with the best in the country. They have not lost a regular-season game since.

All this talk of turning points does not resonate with Franklin, who just sees a long steady grind that continues to this day.

"Like I say with a lot of things, there's 25 slices in this pie," Franklin said. "The Michigan loss last year was a factor. Development was a factor. Players taking responsibility and accountability was a factor. The coaches building relationships and chemistry with the players was a factor. I don't make it as simplistic as a lot of people want it to be."

Things to know about 21st meeting between Penn State and Michigan, but the first since 2002 in which both teams are ranked:

Brown delivers
Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown and Franklin worked together at Maryland under coach Ralph Friedgen in 2009 and '10.

"I would describe Don as a greedy defensive coordinator," said Franklin, who was offensive coordinator. "What I mean by that is, most defensive coordinators are going to try to take something away, but when they take something away, they're giving you something.

"Don doesn't believe in that. Don is going to overload the box. A lot of guys are going to be on the line of scrimmage in blitz demeanor. The defensive backs are going to be pressed pretty much across the board. They're going to try to take your run game away. They're going to take all the easy throws away."

Heisman watch
Barkley's Heisman campaign slowed a bit the last couple weeks as he was held to a 121 yards rushing and 60 receiving. Still, he is without question the focus of Michigan's defense.

"He runs with great balance," Michigan linebacker Devin Bush said told reporters this week. "He can make those cuts. He can hit those small holes."

Penn State's offensive line has had issues keeping defenders out of the backfield and giving Barkley a chance to get rolling. The Nittany Lions rank 122nd in the nation in tackles for loss allowed at 8.33 per game.

"We just have to be more physical up front and sustain our blocks," center Connor McGovern said.

Sluggish Wolverines
Michigan's team passer efficiency rating is 114.41, better than only Illinois and Rutgers in the Big Ten. John O'Korn (one touchdown pass, four interceptions) is expected to start again at quarterback.

Gameday
For the first time since 2009, ESPN's "College GameDay" pregame show will broadcast from State College. Beaver Stadium holds almost 107,000 people and when almost all of them are wearing white it can be one of the most hypnotic sights in college football. Penn State only holds whiteouts for big games. The Nittany Lions are 6-7 in those games.