STATE COLLEGE — The ball violently caromed back toward the Pitt sideline. There was nothing that the Panthers could do but stare at it in disbelief.
Disbelief that a 19-yard field goal from the left hash had smacked clean off the side of the left upright. Disbelief that the call from the head coach was to kick it from the 1-yard line while trailing by seven with less than five minutes to play.
Disbelief that the 100th game between Penn State and Pitt would end like this.
Technically, the Nittany Lions didn’t close out Saturday’s nailbiting 17-10 win until a little later when 6-foot-5 linebacker Cam Brown got way up to swat away a Hail Mary in the back of the end zone.
Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi took a knee and linked arms with his players before the snap. But he shouldn’t have needed any divine intervention to have a shot at the upset.
All of the talk afterward was how No. 13 Penn State (3-0) had stuffed Pitt three times from the 1-yard line on the Panthers’ previous drive, clinging to that 17-10 lead.
And then Narduzzi sent out kicker Alex Kessman.
“I was thinking they were gonna fake it,” Lions linebacker Jan Johnson said. “Then I’m assuming they were gonna kick the field goal and then onside kick it. But…”
But Pitt (1-2) wasn’t considering either option. And Narduzzi didn’t back down from that thinking after the game.
Asked once about the decision: “You need two scores to win the football game, unless you guys are playing for overtime,” Narduzzi said. “We’re trying to win the football game.”
He ignored a question about going for a touchdown and a two-point conversion to take the lead with just one score.
Asked again: “We can look back at all the calls, guys,” Narduzzi said. “All the armchair quarterbacks, you guys got those armchair desks there. It’s easy to make those decisions. We were throwing the ball. We threw for over 300 yards.”
Asked a third time: “I don’t question it. I don’t question it at all.”
Lions coach James Franklin put himself in his counterpart’s shoes, saying, “When you’re able to stop someone at the 1-yard line and then they miss the field goal, that’s significant. The decision they made was make sure they get points.”
Following the best game of his career, Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett (35-for-51, 372 yards) took the high road.
“I’m a player, so I don’t make decisions,” Pickett said. “I do what the coaches tell me to do. And if … we get stopped, people say, ‘Why didn’t you kick it?’ So it is what it is.
“That’s why you guys report, I play and the coaches coach.”
At least one person spoke their mind after the game.
Without any bombast, Lions linebacker Micah Parsons said he was “definitely” surprised when he saw Pitt send out the field goal unit. “I think it’s always a great opportunity to take a chance. You have nothing to lose. If you don’t get it on the 1, we’re backed up.
“It’s just a situation where it’s different thoughts from different people.”
And because it was a missed field goal instead of a stuffed fourth-down try, the Lions took over at the 20 instead of their own 1-yard line, helping them run some clock and flip field position to make Pitt’s last play a prayer instead of a dagger.
And to think, Pitt had torched Penn State on fourth-and-short just before the fateful field goal try.
A well-timed play-action call from new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple — former head coach at UMass and NFL quarterbacks coach for the Steelers and Browns — gashed the Lions. Senior safety Garrett Taylor got caught looking in the backfield and tight end Nakia Griffin-Stewart got behind him for a gain of 36.
A terrific leaping catch on the sideline by Taysir Mack (12 catches, 125 yards) set the Panthers up at the 1.
Then the Penn State defense delivered a signature sequence.
• First down: Another play-fake saw Brown sniff it out, flush Pickett from the pocket and force him to throw it away.
• Second down: Pickett out of the pistol faked a handoff again and took it himself, looking to bounce off left tackle for the score. But Taylor had the read and stopped him in his tracks long enough for linebacker Jesse Luketa to come over and help drop the quarterback behind the line. He was given forward progress to the 1.
• Third down: Pitt brought in its jumbo package and Penn State quickly substituted to get more linemen on the field. But it was another pass, as Pickett was looking for tailback A.J. Davis in the end zone. No Panther even attempted to block Brown, who quickly blew up the play by spinning Pickett around to cause a bad throw.
The three plays rescued the Lions, who again relied too heavily on big plays on offense and were outgained for a second straight week.
But it was just enough as Journey Brown ripped off an 85-yard run to set up a 1-yard plunge by Devyn Ford in the first quarter.
After falling behind 10-7 in very similar fashion to last week’s game against Buffalo, new kicker Jordan Stout tied it before halftime by blasting the longest field goal in Penn State history at 57 yards.
The Lions’ lone consistent drive of the game was led by true freshman running back Noah Cain, who picked up the go-ahead score on a 13-yard burst up the middle in the third quarter.
It didn’t look like it would stand as the winner with Pitt just one yard away from tying it up.
But Narduzzi’s decision will linger over the rivalry, which now goes into hibernation for at least the next decade, and likely longer than that.
Prior to the game in an interview with a Pittsburgh TV affiliate, Narduzzi was blunt about getting one last crack at Penn State.
“It would probably be our Super Bowl to beat them again,” he told WTAE.
“No, it doesn’t hurt any more (because it’s the last time),” Narduzzi said. “A loss is a loss. It doesn’t matter who it’s to, when it is. It’s a non-conference game. All our goals are still ahead of us. We’ve got a resilient football team that I love. We’ll be fine. We’ll be just fine.”
No. 13 Penn State 17, Pitt 10
Pitt`0`10`0`0 — 10
Penn State`7`3`7`0 — 17
PSU— Ford 1 run (Pinegar kick), 4:31
PITT — FG Kessman 25, 6:34
PITT — Davis 3 run (Kessman kick), 2:08
PSU — FG Stout 57, 0:01
PSU — Cain 13 run (Pinegar kick), 5:50
Time of Possession`34:16`25:44
RUSHING — PITT, Jacques-Louis 1-9, Pickett 9-7, V.Davis 4-6, A.Davis 8-5, V.Carter 2-(minus 1), (Team) 1-(minus 2). PSU, J.Brown 10-109, Cain 6-40, D.Ford 5-9, Clifford 7-5, Slade 4-4, Menet 0-0.
PASSING — PITT, Pickett 35-51-0-372. PSU, Clifford 14-30-0-222.
RECEIVING — PITT, Mack 12-125, Ffrench 8-43, A.Davis 7-94, Griffin-Stewart 2-39, Tipton 2-28, Mathews 2-17, Butler-Jenkins 1-27, Gragg 1-(minus 1). PSU, Hamler 3-68, Slade 2-42, Shorter 2-29, Dotson 2-21, Freiermuth 1-16, J.Brown 1-16, Cain 1-13, D.Ford 1-9, Sullivan-Brown 1-8.
MISSED FIELD GOALS — PITT, Kessman 19.
A — 108,661.
Penn State head coach James Franklin talks with Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi during warmups before an NCAA college football game in State College on Saturday.
Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons (11) celebrates after stopping Pittsburgh running back A.J. Davis (21) in the second quarter of an NCAA college football game in State College on Saturday. Penn State defeated Pittsburgh 17-10.