Things were beginning to look a little bleak for Pitt fans on Saturday against Penn State. Up by only three and the opponent driving, this was a familiar sight to just about everyone.
Further cementing that notion was a previously dropped pass for what would have been a touchdown. Penn State was moving the ball and gotten out of a major jam on a 4th and 16 with a completion. Already in range for a long field goal attempt, Penn State decided to go long again from Pitt’s 31-yard line.
The pass, however, was intercepted by senior cornerback Ryan Lewis and that effectively ended the game.
So what goes through a player’s mind like that when making such a special play?
“I saw it and just knew I had to make a play,” Lewis said. “The only thing I had to keep in mind was to stay in bounds. As soon as I caught that ball, the crowd started erupting, I didn’t even know where I was, but my teammates were on me and I knew right there and then, it was over.”
The game was so back and forth and fans were obviously a bit nervous in the crowd. Fortunately, those nerves didn’t extend to the Pitt bench. Lewis explained, “We were never really nervous, we just knew we had to make a play.”
One thing you may not have noticed was that safety Jordan Whitehead was potentially in position to make the pick. Fortunately, he backed off and allowed Lewis to make the sure play.
“I looked over and I see two receivers and I thought I was going to intercept it,” Whitehead said. “I look back and see Ryan [Lewis] so I didn’t jump and I let him get it. It was a great interception.”
I thought it was really special to see Lewis make that play. As I wrote earlier, Pitt fans had all but buried him in training camp, expecting that Damar Hamlin would have worked his way into the starting lineup by now. To see him redeemed on some level while Hamlin battles through an undisclosed injury is incredible.
While fans may have been concerned about him starting, Whitehead said the players believed in him. “Everybody had faith in him,” he said.
There was a lot of talk about Penn State taking that shot too early. Maybe. But the Nittany Lions also had some problems fumbling the ball and were previously successful on a deeper passing route on that 4th and 16 play. Furthermore, the long pass to receiver DaeSean Hamilton was nearly complete as he broke free and was wide open. Earlier, Pitt had been beaten on another long pass play. Tough call, I suppose, but Penn State was at least having some success with the deep ball so I understood it.
FWIW, head coach James Franklin said after the game that there was some miscommunication in what should have happened.
“We ran a wrong route,” said the head coach. “We had some guys on the field that aren’t typically on the field and we ran a wrong route. Obviously we can’t throw the ball up where we threw it. We have to put it in a position where our guy can make a play or get another down.”
Franklin, too, was bothered by the receivers not trying to break up the pass play.
“Another thing is, when the ball is in the air and you see it’s going to be intercepted,” he added, “you’ve got to go break it up. You’ve got to go fight like heck. Even if you get a pass interference on offense, you have to do whatever you can to break it up. So on that play we ran the wrong route, and then we didn’t go fight to break up the interception.”
Up 28-7 and then being in position to lose seems like it would be hard to stomach. But Pitt’s players never folded and realized that swings happen.
“That’s football, the highs and lows,” recalled Lewis. “We knew we were going to come back and that we kept our composure, and in the end it paid off.”