Poor Pitt special teams play leads to Penn State rout

By Derek Levarse - [email protected]
Derek Levarse | Times Leader
Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) gets off a pass under pressure from Penn State linebacker Cam Brown during the first half of Saturday’s game in Pittsburgh. - Gene J. Puskar | AP photo
Penn State wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins (3) returns a punt for a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. Penn State won 51-6. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) - Gene J. Puskar | AP photo

PITTSBURGH — It was a one-point game. For a long time. Honest.

How it could have possibly morphed into this — a 51-6 Penn State demolition of archrival Pitt on Saturday — begins with the tale of an injured holder.

That would be Pitt’s Jake Scarton, a backup kicker who opened the season as the holder but was hurt in the Panthers’ win over Albany.

The fact that anyone outside of the team knows his name now — and the name of his replacement, punter Kirk Christodoulou — was a very bad sign indeed for the Panthers.

Tough to blame all of the Nittany Lions’ 45-point victory on a punter/holder. But add it all up and a whopping 21 points could be attributed to some of Christodoulou’s miscues at drenched and miserable Heinz Field.

As the holder, Christodoulou mishandled two snaps, leading to a botched extra point attempt (one point) and a missed field goal (three points).

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi had so little faith in the field goal operation at that point that he passed up a go-ahead field goal attempt from the Penn State 4-yard line. He instead handed it off on fourth-and-3 and was stuffed (three points).

Despite all of that, the Panthers trailed just 7-6 with time winding down in the first half. And then Christodoulou simply dropped a wet ball before he could punt it with Jarvis Miller recovering it in Pitt territory.

A few moments later, the Lions put it in the end zone (seven points) when Trace McSorley found KJ Hamler wide open to make it 14-6 at the break.

The grand slam of special teams misery came in the third quarter when a line drive punt from the back of the end zone was returned for a touchdown by DeAndre Thompkins (seven points) to put a stake in the Panthers.

“That’s a lot of pressure to put on one kid,” Narduzzi said afterward of Christodoulou, a redshirt freshman who hails from Australia.

It ultimately broke the Panthers, who proceeded to implode in the third quarter and then watched the Lions throw salt in their eyes in the fourth quarter.

And so a one-point Lions advantage — which easily could have been a Pitt lead — turned into Penn State’s most lopsided win in the series in exactly 50 years, a 65-9 pounding back in 1968, Joe Paterno’s third season as head coach.

“We were feeling fine at halftime, honestly,” junior guard Steven Gonzalez said. “We were confident we were going to come out and clean some things up.”

Did they ever.

Gonzalez and the line paved the way for Miles Sanders’ first career 100-yard rushing game, finishing with 118 in his hometown.

“He probably has 200 yards (total offense) if it wasn’t for the penalties,” Lions coach James Franklin said, referencing two flags against wide receivers blocking downfield that wiped out a touchdown.

Penn State’s defense was even better after the break.

The first half brought back memories of Pitt’s win two years ago as the Panthers ground game gashed the Lions to the tune of 210 yards in the opening 30 minutes.

But after Penn State stuffed running back Qadree Ollison on the fourth-and-3 near the goal line late in the second quarter, the Panthers offense never regained its footing.

Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett was dropped for four sacks and finished with just 55 yards passing as his receivers got zero separation against a Lions secondary that was missing injured corner John Reid.

The run game vanished in the second half as well. Emerging back into the rain from the locker room, Pitt finished the third quarter with minus-2 total yards, minus-15 rushing yards, seven penalties, two sacks allowed and one safety allowed.

Yes, the Lions’ defense scored more points in the quarter than the Panthers had yards.

“We just made some subtle adjustments,” Franklin said. “We lpayed more base defense in the second half. We gave up some big plays, but I’ll take giving up six points. We really played some clutch defense.”

Defensive tackle Kevin Givens, back from a one-game suspension, turned in a career-high seven tackles against the team he had originally committed to before signing with the Lions.

“Kevin Givens is a difference-maker,” Franklin said.

True freshman Micah Parsons added seven tackles of his own, seeing a bit more time in place of senior Koa Farmer at weak-side linebacker. Though he limped off after the Lions recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter, he wrote on Twitter after the game that he was fine.

On offense, everyone got into the act in the second half after Hamler scored both Lions’ touchdowns in the first.

Mac Hippenhammer’s first career catch was a touchdown from McSorley, who also ran one in himself. Mark Allen found the end zone on a short run.

And when the Lions finally pulled McSorley midway through the fourth quarter up 44-6, third-string quarterback Sean Clifford dropped back and launched a bomb to Brandon Polk for a 34-yard touchdown on his first career pass attempt.

At that point, the Lions had 37 second-half points. Pitt had 23 second-half yards.

If that weren’t enough, Franklin earned plenty of boos from the few remaining fans when, up by 45 points with one minute left, he (unsuccessfully) challenged a Penn State fumble to extend the game.

“Hey, you know what, I coach Pitt football — I don’t coach for anybody else,” Narduzzi said of the late-game tactics. “That’s on them. You’ve got to sleep at night. It’s just where we are right now. We’ll have another shot. We’ll have another shot. It ain’t over.”

True, Pitt will have one more crack at the Lions next September for the 100th meeting between the teams before the series again goes into extended hibernation. But it’s possible they never meet again at Heinz Field.

If that’s the case, the Lions will have some long-lasting memories of the Steel City.

“My whole family was here,” said Sanders, who played at nearby Woodland Hills High School and estimated he rounded up nearly 30 tickets to give to friends and family. “They all came, so I appreciate they came out.

“It was awesome. (Penn State fans) took over the stadium (by the end of the game). We knew we were coming into a tough environment. We just wanted to take over the stadium and get out with a win. … Just felt like Penn State. All I heard was ‘We are’ at the end.”

Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) gets off a pass under pressure from Penn State linebacker Cam Brown during the first half of Saturday’s game in Pittsburgh.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/web1_AP18252084214640-7.jpgPittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) gets off a pass under pressure from Penn State linebacker Cam Brown during the first half of Saturday’s game in Pittsburgh. Gene J. Puskar | AP photo

Penn State wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins (3) returns a punt for a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. Penn State won 51-6. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/web1_AP18252157189297_ne2018991528848-3.jpgPenn State wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins (3) returns a punt for a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. Penn State won 51-6. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)Gene J. Puskar | AP photo
Special teams play turns tight game into rout

By Derek Levarse

[email protected]

Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse

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Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse