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Pitt falls to rival No. 4 Penn State, 33-14

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt was expected to lose to Penn State by about 20 points today and ultimately fell, 33-14. 19 points. That, by the way, is exactly what the first spread was that dropped in May.

Those guys are good.

If you watched the game, the score was kind of unfortunate from a Pitt standpoint. The Panthers trailed only 14-3 at halftime and with even a modicum offense, would have been right in it. That theme continued in the second as the Panthers got inside the 10-yard line again in the third quarter but, for the second time, had to settle for a short field goal to make it a 21-6 game. Settling for two field goals there kept it from becoming more of a game and you've got to give Penn State credit there for keeping Pitt out of the end zone. Pitt, in fact, actually outgained Penn State, 342-312. This one was about big plays and field position, folks.

All game long, the general feeling was that Pitt was kind of hanging around but not really threatening to actually win it. The good news is that it made the game closer than a lot of Penn State fans predicting 30- and 40-point blowouts. The bad, of course, is that it's still a pretty comfortable loss.

I can't speak for other Pitt fans, but I'm hardly disappointed in the result. Seeing them not keep it a little closer is kind of annoying, I suppose, but overall, Pitt played hard and didn't allow for an absolutely ugly game, which I think was the concern here. I'm sure if you ask Pat Narduzzi or the players, they won't be happy with the result. But when Pitt got behind early, 14-0, some teams would have certainly folded and it could have gotten out of hand. At that point, it looked like it could have been really, really ugly.

The biggest problem for Pitt today, in my eyes, was supremely poor field position. The Panthers were inside their own 20-yard line seven times and inside their 10-yard line three times. Conversely, Penn State was able to get some really short fields. The Panthers' offense just isn't good enough to put together long drives for touchdowns on a consistent basis, so that was a really big issue.

Pitt was also mistake-prone all day long and that didn't help. The Panthers had three crucial drops earlier in the game (two by Jester Weah and one by Chris Clark). Quadree Henderson was taken down for bad losses on punt returns after trying to make plays. Henderson also, inexplicably, caught a punt around the 5-yard line and Pitt had to quickly punt then gave up a pass play on a short field to Barkley for a touchdown. That, in case you missed the game, was as bad of a sequence as it sounds. Quarterback Max Browne also threw two picks and, even though one may not have been his fault as he and Weah seemed mixed up, he didn't have a great game. Lots of blame to go around today and too many mistakes for a team that already needed things to break their way to win.

Conversely, Pitt just didn't make big plays, either, unlike last year against Penn State, Clemson, and others. Penn State's defense was quite impressive at times and the trick plays that Pitt ran off to perfection last season just weren't there this year. Last year, the Nittany Lions were clearly caught off guard. This time, not so much. And while Pitt's defense played mostly well, they didn't get the big plays they needed to make this a game with the offense struggling. Not a ton of sacks, not a fumble recovery or a key interception. Dane Jackson picked off Trace McSorely at the end of the first half on a Hail Mary, but that was it. They held but what Pitt really needed to win was probably to win the turnover battle - and they lost that today, three to one.

Getting back to Browne, there are already going to be calls for his head after today. Overall, he was 19-32 for only 138 yards, no touchdowns, and the two picks. Backup Ben DiNucci came into the game by accident as Browne had his helmet removed and had to sit for a play. It ended up being a big sequence since it was 3rd down with Pitt inside the Penn State 10-yard line. DiNucci made a great play, showing his athleticism, scoring a touchdown. Browne returned before Narduzzi allowed DiNucci the chance to run the final series. He drove the team down the field against a Penn State defense that had clearly backed off a little by that point, but didn't get the ball into the end zone. DiNucci finished 5-9 for 49 yards.

I know a lot of people want to give Browne the hook already, but he's played basically only a single game to this point. Of course he played against Youngstown State but barely had a chance to do much of anything of value with the team relying heavily on the run and short passing plays. I'm not in favor of removing Browne yet - just way too early for that. Plus, imagine if Pitt were to remove him and then discovered DiNucci wasn't the answer, either. They'd have to go back to Browne when the games were more important in the ACC.

Browne is clearly not Peterman but I'm not sure DiNucci is, either. You don't start playing games with your quarterback this early. Narduzzi, of course, has done that, swapping out Chad Voytik in short order two years ago in favor of Peterman. That worked out but doesn't mean that's necessarily a great strategy.

What I think should happen is Pitt should start Browne against Oklahoma State and go from there. That game isn't meaningless for Pitt but it's also not an ACC contest, either. If Browne struggles in that one, I'd perhaps see what you have with DiNucci. I know quarterback controversies have fans in heat and 95% of fans are enamored with the backup quarterback if the starter struggles a little. But you don't make a change based on one game and I'm not holding the Youngstown State game against Browne when he had such a small playbook to work with.

So, looking for a few positives from today? I'll bite.

The defense was better than most probably would have expected. 33 points isn't exactly shutting a team out but considering 14 of those came pretty early with good field position both times (the first was the result of an interception and started within Pitt's 10-yard line). Pitt's defense held Penn State numerous times and, overall, played relatively well. Pitt actually outpassed Penn State and the Nittany Lions had only 164 passing yards on the day. The pass defense seems to be getting better and the Panthers didn't even have safety Jordan Whitehead, who is probably their best player in the secondary. I'm not ready to declare the secondary world beaters yet but they may have moved past the dumpster fire stage, which is a step.

I also really liked what Qadree Ollison did today. Ollison outgained Saquon Barkley, 96 yards to 88, and his 6.4 yards per carry topped Barkley's 6.3 as well. He had a strong game against Youngstown State last weekend but looked much better today and broke off some bigger runs. He clearly looks like the best of Pitt's three options right now and hopefully he can stay on the field a little bit more and help solidify the offense.

And on a lesser note, I was glad to see kicker Alex Kessman get on the board with two field goals. He had a rough debut against Youngstown State but, even though his kicks were short today (both inside 30 yards), hopefully that gives him some confidence going forward.

Two quick, ancillary points here before I wrap up because they have to be mentioned. First, those uniforms are as gorgeous as everyone thinks they are. I strongly believe we'll see those colors back sooner on a full-time basis rather than later. Second, the game was one of the largest in Penn State history with around 109,000 in attendance (not a rival, tho).

Again, would have been nice to have kept it a little closer. A loss is a loss and dealing with the utter arrogance of Penn State fans for a year seems to be an unjust punishment. But, I mean, I can't be mad here. This is what was expected. Anything inside of ten points would have been good all things considered and after that fast start, it would have been easy to let things get out of hand. I was glad to see them keep things from getting out of hand and stay in the game.

Next up, Oklahoma State.

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