PITTSBURGH – The Penn State defense had been gashed by Pittsburgh's rushing attack through much of the first half. Now with Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi passing on a chip-shot field goal and going for it on fourth-and-3 from the PSU 4, the Nittany Lions needed to make a stand.
They did. Qadree Ollison, who had rushed for 128 yards to that point, was stacked up by the left side of the defense with cornerback Zech McPhearson finishing him off for a 3-yard loss.
The play, with just under 5 minutes left in the first half, seemed to sap the enthusiasm of the Panthers and their fans among the 68,400 sitting through a steady rain at Heinz Field.
"That changed the game," said defensive end Shareef Miller, the George Washington High graduate who stood up a blocker and allowed McPhearson to make the tackle. "It was fourth-and-3 and we had that stop, that was big. That got all the juices flowing and everything. That was a great stop."
The Lions (2-0), who moved up two spots, to No. 11, in the new AP poll, retained their 7-6 lead amd took advantage of a fumble recovery to score a touchdown just before halftime. Then they poured it on like so many raindrops Saturday night, winning 51-6, the most lopsided score of the 99-game series since 1968.
The offense again struggled with consistency, but Trace McSorley threw for two touchdowns and ran for one. Dynamic redshirt freshman K.J. Hamler raced 32 yards for a score and caught one of McSorley's TD passes. However, a dominant second-half defense and a lopsided edge in special-teams play turned it into an easy night.
After gaining 231 total yards in the first half, 214 on the ground, the Panthers accounted for minus-2 yards of offense, minus-15 yards rushing, and zero first downs in the third quarter against the Lions, who also recorded a safety.
Head coach James Franklin said his team made subtle adjustments at halftime to slow the Panthers' running game. Ollison had minus-6 yards in the second half, finishing with 119 yards.
With the help of punts of 52 and 51 yards by Penn State's Blake Gillikin, Pitt started deep in its own territory on its first four third-quarter possessions, from the 15, the 8, the 5, and the 4.
On the other hand, the Panthers did not play well on special teams. Much of that fell into the hands of punter Kirk Christodoulou, who had to fill in as the holder because of an injury.
Christodoulou could not handle snaps cleanly on an extra-point attempt after Pitt's lone TD, and on a 35-yard field goal attempt that went wide. His fumbled punt snap was recovered by the Lions' Jarvis Miller and led to the McSorley-to-Hamler 14-yard TD strike with 26 seconds left in the first half.
Late in the third quarter, he hit a low punt that DeAndre Thompkins returned 39 yards for a touchdown.
"Coach Franklin always tells us from Week 1 to Week 2 you should make the most progress, and I think on special teams we absolutely did that," Gillikin said. "I'm really proud of how our guys played."
The Panthers killed themselves with penalties, 14 for 116 yards, including a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct against Narduzzi. Two of the Lions' four penalties negated big gains by Miles Sanders, who rushed for 118 yards on 16 carries, his first 100-yard game.