After gut-punch losses, No. 14 Penn State overcomes slow start to beat Rutgers

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After gut-punch losses, No. 14 Penn State overcomes slow start to beat Rutgers

BOX SCORE

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Hangovers? That was apparently something for the folks in the Beaver Stadium parking lots to worry about. Penn State coach James Franklin wasn’t interested in discussing whether his team might have been in the throes of one Saturday afternoon, when it started slowly and then slogged to a workmanlike 35-6 homecoming victory over Rutgers (see observations).

Never mind that the 14th-ranked Lions were coming off back-to-back gut-punch losses, at Ohio State and Michigan State. Never mind that the season’s course appears to be set, that there is a certain resignation about what this outfit, now 8-2, might be able to accomplish.

He was more interested in recalibrating everybody’s sights, making them understand there is still much that can be salvaged, even if a return trip to the Big Ten championship game is a long shot, a berth in the College Football Playoff a near impossibility.

“I think,” he began, “we made progress, and we were able to get a fairly convincing win against a program on the rise.”

Well, yeah, kinda. Rutgers came in with three victories in its last four games and overall has won twice as often as it had while going 2-10 last year. Then the Scarlet Knights moved to a 6-0 lead after a quarter, in part because none of the Lions elected to field the opening kickoff, before PSU yawned, stretched and made its appointed rounds.

Trace McSorley threw for two touchdowns and ran for one. Saquon Barkley, limited to a season-low 35 yards on the ground, nonetheless rushed for two TDs of his own. And later he addressed the season’s expectations, as opposed to the grim realities.

“I visualized going undefeated,” he said. “I visualized everything. But you only get to control what you can control.”

And the games in Columbus and East Lansing slipped through their fingers, in large part because they are lacking on both lines — Franklin went so far as to call their offense “too finesse” after the MSU loss — but also because of a blocked punt here, a roughing-the-passer penalty there, and few dozen completions by J.T. Barrett and Brian Lewerke.

Tough to adjust one’s focus after all that. But outwardly, at least, they are being brave in the attempt.

“We’re 8-2 right now,” Barkley said. “We hold ourselves to such a high standard that everyone thinks this is a bad season. There’s multiple teams that would beg and wish and dream to be in the position we are.”

A 10-2 regular-season finish is still possible. So too is a berth in a New Year’s Day bowl. Scant consolation, maybe, since the Lions were No. 2 in the country heading into the Ohio State game, but consolation nonetheless.

“We’re 8-2, top 15 team in the country,” Barkley said again, “and everyone’s like the season’s going to crap, which realistically it’s not. We all wanted to have an undefeated season, but we didn’t. We lost two games. But now that’s all behind us. All you can really focus on is the last three games that we have and (go about) doing what you can do to win those games.”

No surprise, then, that Barkley fended off questions about his immediate and long-term future — that he would say neither whether he planned to declare for the draft (as expected) nor whether he planned to sit out the bowl game, as two NFL-bound backs, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, did a year ago.

That’s a discussion for another time, he said, in both cases. More pressing now is whether the Lions can ever knock anybody off the ball. Barkley, working behind a line minus injured tackle Ryan Bates for the second straight week, found little traction against Rutgers. And over the last three weeks, he has managed 141 yards on 49 carries, while seeing his Heisman chances evaporate.

Time and again Franklin has said his team needs to be more physical — on both sides of the ball, but particularly on offense. And when asked whether any strides had been made in that regard Saturday, he didn’t exactly offer a ringing endorsement.

“I think a little bit,” he said, “but I still think that’s an area that we can get better in.”

Barkley’s take on Franklin’s week-old assessment?

“‘Finesse’ means we’re trying to be too flashy and got to grind out the yards and be a little more gritty,” he said. “That’s what I think of when I think ‘finesse.’ ”

He too thought some progress had been made. Baby steps, anyway.

Same for the recalibration process, the resetting of goals. One would think, after all, that the hangover cannot last forever, despite all appearances to the contrary.

Penn State overcomes slow start, dominates Pittsburgh

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Penn State overcomes slow start, dominates Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH -- Trace McSorley threw for two touchdowns and ran for another as No. 13 Penn State pulled away for a 51-6 victory over sloppy Pittsburgh on Saturday night.

KJ Hamler ran 32 yards for a score and hauled in a 14-yard touchdown pass from McSorley as the Nittany Lions (2-0) bounced back from an opening week scare against Appalachian State to dominate their 99th meeting with the Panthers (1-1).

McSorley finished 14 of 30 for 145 yards in the rain at soggy Heinz Field, giving him a measure of redemption. Two years ago, Pitt edged the Nittany Lions at home, a loss that ultimately cost Penn State a spot in the College Football Playoff.

The memory stuck with McSorley, who had a far different feeling this time around.

"I think it's something, it might have fueled me a little bit more knowing we were returning here and had an opportunity to get that bad taste out of our mouths and things like that," McSorley said. "It's a lot sweeter, able to leave the field with a good victory tonight."

Miles Sanders ran for 118 yards for the Nittany Lions, DeAndre Thompson returned a punt 39 yards for a touchdown and Penn State limited Pitt to just 89 yards in the second half.

"We played really clutch defense," Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said. "So I think we made some really good strides."

There are no plans for the rivalry to continue beyond next year's game at Beaver Stadium.

Considering how things went in the second half that might not be a bad thing for either side. Penn State's margin of victory was the third-largest by either team in a series that dates to 1893. The chants of "We Are ... Penn State" rang throughout the stadium in the final minutes.

Pitt senior Qadree Ollison ran for 119 yards and a 13-yard score for Pitt, but went nowhere after halftime. Neither did the Panthers. Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett struggled in the steady rain, completing just 9 of 18 passes for 55 yards. Pickett also ran for 30 yards, but spent most of the night under heavy pressure. He was sacked four times and took a handful of jarring hits when he was able to scramble for positive yardage.

"Ultimately, everything lays right on my chest," Panther coach Pat Narduzzi said. "I'll take it all. We obviously didn't have them ready to go in any capacity: offensively, defensively or special teams."

The blowout finish seemed unlikely late in the first half. Penn State led just 7-6 with a minute to go before Pitt began self-destructing. Punter Kirk Christodoulou dropped a snap and the Nittany Lions took over in Pitt territory. McSorley needed just three plays to find Hamler to put the Nittany Lions up 14-6 at the break.

It was all Penn State after that. McSorley scored on a 4-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter, a Pitt penalty in the end zone resulted in a safety minutes later, and when Thompson took a punt at the 39 and veered to his left to race untouched to the end zone, the Nittany Lions were firmly in control.

Pitt did plenty to help Penn State pull away. The Panthers were flagged 14 times for 116 yards -- including an unsportsmanlike call on Narduzzi -- turned it over three times and provided no response when the Nittany Lions got serious.

"I've never seen so many penalties in one game," Narduzzi said. "It starts with my 15 yarder. But 14 penalties . embarrassing. There were some good calls, too. I'm not saying the officiating was bad. We just had some stuff that just snowballed on us. It starts with me."

No. 10 Penn State avoids upset with OT win over Appalachian State

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No. 10 Penn State avoids upset with OT win over Appalachian State

BOX SCORE

STATE COLLEGE, Pa.  — After squandering a 14-point, fourth-quarter lead to a program with a history of being a giant killer, things grew tense in Happy Valley.

Not for Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley.

The Heisman Trophy hopeful led a game-tying drive with less than a minute to go to force overtime and No. 10 Penn State rebounded to hold off Appalachian State 45-38 exactly 11 years after the Mountaineers stunned Michigan in one of the biggest upsets in college football history.

With two defenders in his face, McSorley, who was 21-for-36 passing for 230 yards and two rushing touchdowns, fired off his back foot to KJ Hamler for the 15-yard score with 42 seconds left. Penn State's defense held on to send the game to overtime where Miles Sanders scored the go-ahead touchdown for the Nittany Lions (1-0) and cornerback Amani Oruwariye intercepted a Zac Thomas pass in the end zone to seal the win.

"I don't know what's in the water in Boone, North Carolina, but it seems like they've been doing this for a long time against whoever they play," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "I started the game at 46 years old. I ended it at 51."

McSorley went on the field with 1:47 left and his team trailing 38-31 after watching the Mountaineers score on three straight possessions over 5:53 in the fourth quarter. Any stress?

"Not really," McSorley said. "I think it's just because I love playing football and I think that's the best thing about our team. Everyone loves playing football. There's no one out there who's nervous."

Sanders, who played well in Saquon Barkley's shadow the last two seasons, looked calm taking over primary rushing duties. He ran 19 times for 91 yards with two touchdowns, but it took a Jake Pinegar field goal to let Penn State head into halftime in a 10-10 tie.

In fact, the Mountaineers controlled much of the game before that and rebounded after surrendering two scoring drives to open the third. Thomas, who was briefly knocked out of the game after being sandwiched violently between defenders early in the fourth, led the way in front of more than 105,000 people, Penn State's largest home-opening crowd in a decade.

Making his first career start, Thomas completed 25 of 38 passes for 270 yards, threw for two touchdowns and ran for another for Appalachian State (0-1). Jalin Moore ran 18 times for 88 yards and scored a go-ahead touchdown on a 16-yard run. Malik Williams caught two touchdowns for the Mountaineers and Chandler Staton added a 38-yard field goal.

"That was a resounding yes that we won't back down, we will keep fighting," Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield said. "That's the heart of our program for the last 30 years. (At least) since I've been here."

History nearly repeats

In 2007, it was No. 5. Michigan fighting for its life trying to make a game-winning kick at home against the I-AA Mountaineers. But Corey Lynch blocked Michigan's field-goal attempt to seal the 34-32 win. No I-AA team had ever beaten a team ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 poll between 1989 and 2006, and it's unlikely it had ever happened before. Afterward, the AP changed the way it conducted its poll, allowing schools from all divisions to be eligible to receive votes.

On Saturday, another storied Big Ten program was on its heels against the Mountaineers, a Sun Belt Conference powerhouse that went 8-4 a year ago. There was a late field-goal try, too, but the 56-yard bid from Staton sailed wide right to set up OT.

The takeaway 

Appalachian State: The Mountaineers continued their trend of playing Top 25 teams tough in season openers. Two years ago, they also lost in overtime on the road to a top 10 opponent (20-13 to No. 9 Tennessee) and hung tough against Georgia last season. They controlled play for much of the first half and looked poised to deliver another stunning performance after their 2007 stunner over Michigan in The Big House. Despite the loss, they appear to have the pieces to make a run at what would be at their third straight Sun Belt championship.

Penn State: Having lost their three top playmakers and vaunted offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, who took over as Mississippi State's head coach, the Nittany Lion offense looks like a work in progress. McSorley can do plenty with his legs if he and his receivers aren't on the same page but Penn State's defense couldn't get a stop in the fourth quarter where the Nittany Lions were outgained and outscored 28-14.

Poll implications

Penn State: It wasn't a pretty showing by any means, but the Nittany Lions have enough talent and one of the best players in the country in McSorley to stay among the poll's elites.

Up next

Appalachian State travels to Charlotte on Sept. 8

Penn State visits Pittsburgh on Sept. 8.