Maybe it was the missing piece No. 13 Penn State needed, or perhaps it was because the playing surface was treacherous most of the night. Maybe both.
But Saturday night proved to be the rebound performance the Nittany Lions’ defense needed after needing overtime to beat Appalachian State.
Fresh off a one-game suspension, it was defensive tackle Kevin Givens who led the way for the Penn State defense as they kept Pitt off the board for the last three quarters en route to a 51-6 victory at Heinz Field Saturday night.
Givens proved to be just what the doctor ordered as the defense held the Panthers to only 69 total yards in the second half after a 221-yard outburst before the half.
“We all realize Kevin Givens is a difference maker,” James Franklin said after the game. “The fact you’ve got Kevin and (Robert) Windsor and Shareef (Miller) and Yetur (Gross-Matos) all on the field, we feel that’s a really good group.”
The defense got gashed for 28 fourth-quarter points without Givens last week, but he was a sight for sore eyes with his teammates against Pitt.
“He just disrupts all the plays. That’s what we need from him,” running back Miles Sanders said. “I’m happy he’s back, and I know he’s happy he’s back.”
It wasn’t just Givens, especially up front, who had a big night defensively for the Nittany Lions. The defensive ends came up with 3.5 sacks with Miller, Shaka Toney, and Daniel Joseph each contributing one apiece. Linebacker Jan Johnson contributed the other half sack.
After a first half which saw the defensive front get run over to the tune of 214 yards, Penn State came out in the second half and dominated the trenches. Routinely rushing four and making Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett scramble to stay on his feet was a big factor in the success of the Penn State defense in the second half.
The secondary was stout all night, which also contributed to the success up front, but when a team is able to get pressure on the quarterback and stop runners in the backfield when rushing only four men, good things will happen.
It was a rebound performance desperately needed for the Nittany Lions and their defense, and it fed into the other sides of the football with the result being a dominating win.
“Last week, we didn’t play good in the fourth quarter defensively, but (today) we played the whole game, it was a hell of a game for the defense today,” Sanders said. “It was a good team win, a really good team win.”
THE GAME BALLS
My top three performers:
1. KJ Hamler
Penn State wide receiver
Hamler accounted for the Nittany Lions’ two first-half touchdowns, one coming on the ground and the other as a receiver. He would finish the day with 40 yards receiving, 32 yards rushing and 73 yards on kickoff returns.
2. Miles Sanders
Penn State running back
Sanders failed to find the end zone but was able to rush for 118 yards on 16 carries. The Woodland Hills High School grad could have had closer to 200 total yards and a touchdown, had two big plays not been brought back as the result of penalties.
3. Kevin Givens
Penn State defensive tackle
Givens led the way in his first game action of the season with seven tackles, five of which were for a loss.
Penn State dominated the field position battle, thanks in large part to a game-changing performance by punter Blake Gillikin.
Gillikin, a junior, punted the ball only five times, but amassed a total of 219 yards on those five attempts. Four of those five were inside the 20-yard line, and three were inside the 5-yard line.
“I thought Blake was a big difference in the game this week compared to last week,” Franklin said. “Tough weather conditions, and he was able to punt the ball and swing field position when we needed him to.”
The average starting field position for Pitt was their own 25-yard line, but if you take out the two lost Penn State fumbles that gave the Panthers good field position, that average drops to about the 19-yard line. On the other hand, the Nittany Lions, on average, started at their own 44-yard line.
Pinning the Panthers deep in their own zone gave the Lions the opportunity to play a little more aggressively knowing Pitt was in the shadow of their own end zone most of the night, and it paid off for the visitors.
The Nittany Lions came out and got gashed between the tackles by Pitt running back Qadree Ollison. But they were able to make clutch plays, and had they not done so, this game could’ve been completely different.
Pitt rushed for a total of 214 yards in the first half, and that was nearly the only statistic where they posted a big number, aside from penalties.
It was not the start Penn State was looking for, and it did not bode well for the confidence of the defensive unit after their performance in the fourth quarter against Appalachian State. But, once the Nittany Lions stopped the Panthers on fourth-and-3 from the 4-yard line, the momentum began to swing their way.
A lot of the issues that plagued Penn State in the first half were along the defensive line, where the ends would get too far upfield. That cost them, as Ollison ran for 125 yards and Pickett ran for 45 yards of his own.
“The reality is we were not what we call spilling at the defensive end,” Franklin said. “They were running some power plays, they were running some counter plays, and our defensive end was getting up the field. When the guard came to kick him, he was up the field, he was getting kicked out.”
The changes, albeit small, paid huge dividends in the second half, holding the Panthers scoreless with 69 yards.
It was the first drive of the game, and the Penn State offense was in an early groove. And it was at that point the newest face of the Penn State offense, KJ Hamler, came to life.
Hamler, lined up in the slot, came in motion, and the rest, as they say, was history. The redshirt freshman was off to the races and ran the sweep 32 yards untouched to the end zone.
It was the first and only rush of the game for Hamler, one of the heroes last week against Appalachian State, and he made the most of it.
“Me and Miles were talking about this every day,” Hamler said. “Every week, we’ve gotta prove ourselves since we’re the new faces of the offense. We talk about this everyday, we just gotta go out there and ball.”
That confidence and poise from Hamler, who has appeared in only two college games, has resulted in three touchdowns heading into next week’s matchup against Kent State.
Hamler put the Nittany Lions on top, then proceeded to put the dagger through the heart of Pitt fans with his 14-yard touchdown reception just before the end of the second quarter. The momentum gained from the late touchdown gave Penn State the boost they needed en route to a 37-point performance in the second half.
Faced with fourth-and-3 at the Penn State 4-yard line, Pat Narduzzi called a timeout. Prior to the timeout, Pitt had been running inside the tackles rather easily against the Penn State defensive front, feeding Ollison the ball four times for a total of 23 yards on that drive.
As the Panthers broke the timeout, they came out in the same formation they had been in prior to the timeout. The Nittany Lions knew exactly what was coming.
“I knew they were about to run that play,” Miller said. “They had like a tackle over, then they had 35 (fullback George Aston). Where 35 is, that’s where they run the ball, so I was able to hit it to mess the pullers up.”
Ollison was wrapped up in the backfield for a 3-yard loss by cornerback Zech McPhearson as a result of Miller blowing it up. After that goal line stand, Pitt mustered only 73 yards of offense the rest of the game.
THE OTHER SIDE
Matt Grubba has coverage of the game from the Pitt perspective.
THE INJURY UPDATE
• Tommy Stevens, quarterback, was on the travel roster, but did not play in Saturday’s game. It marks the second week in a row he has been held out due to injury. The positive here is he was in full gear this week during practice, so there is light at the end of the tunnel as far as his injury is concerned.
• Shane Simmons, defensive end, was held out of Saturday’s game due to an injury sustained in camp. He was on the travel roster, but, aside from that, there’s not much else to report on his front.
Penn State takes the field against Kent State for a noon kickoff at Beaver Stadium next Saturday. Until then, they will have Franklin’s weekly press conference at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday and media availability after practice Wednesday night.
Visit our Penn State team page for everything from this game.
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY