The word Should doesn’t belong in sports, because it implies that events should happen a certain way. To wit: A team should beat their opponent because of rank, and status. And I’ll be honest with you, 9 time out of 10 when you think a team should win for those reasons, they end up losing.
Such is the case with the Pitt Panthers who opened their 2017 season against the Youngstown State Penguins, the runner-up to the Football Championship Series Subdivision title game last season. This team may be Division I-AA, but they have shown that they’re no pushover, especially to Pitt when they beat the Panthers 31-17 in 2012, so you would think that Pitt wouldn’t think to underestimate this team, right?
Well, I have no proof that head coach Pat Narduzzi (who knows Youngstown State pretty well) and his Panthers overlooked the Penguins for next week’s showdown vs. Penn State but for one half it should looked like they did on the field as it took overtime to beat the Penguins in a 28-21 thriller that basically should not have been one. (Yes I said shouldn’t, but it fits my point)
In the first half, the Panthers played like a team that was ready to dominate the Penguins as they scored on their first 2 drives thanks to RB Quadree Ollison who earned back the starting job two years after earning it when James Conner was injured. Ollison not only ran it in for 6 yards to complete an 11 plays 71 drive, he also had an impressive 30 yard screen pass in which he jumped over a Penguins defender. After forcing the Penguins to punt, Ollison scored again on an 11-play 88 yard drive, this time from 5 yards, giving them a 14-0 lead. The defense kept YSU honest, forcing QB Hunter Wells out of the pocket and into punting situations.
Pitt would score again when freshman RB AJ Davis, who entered the game when Ollison got injured leaped from the 1-yard line to extend Pitt’s lead to 21-0. YSU attempted a 43-yard FG but it sailed wide left. The Panthers went into halftime with their 21-0 lead
You would think it was over at this point, right? Of course you know better.
Not sure where Pitt’s offense (or their heads) went in the 2nd half, but they on their first 3 drives, they came away with no points, meanwhile the Penguins found their mojo as they got on the board on a 1-yard TD by RB Tevin McCaster. After Pitt once again did nothing on their next drive, the Penguins also did nothing and tried a pooch punt that was blocked, and picked up by S Jazze Stocker who ran it to the YSU 4.
Just when you thought the Panthers would put this game away, they failed on 3 straight attempts and when freshman K Alex Kessman lined up for a 25-yard chip shot, he missed. And then YSU responded by going down the field and eventually scoring when QB Hunter Wells found RB Christian Turner to close the gap to 21-14.
And if you think that was bad for Pitt, just wait: It gets worse. On their next drive, Browne continued his ineptitude by not just getting sacked, but losing the football, which was recovered by YSU who once again took it to the Pitt defense as Wells found Turner once again, this time from 42 yards to tie the game at 21 with 3:35 left.
And to add insult to injury, the expected Hurricane Harvey rain finally came. Through it all, the Panthers took over and drove the field, come up with an impressive catch by WR Maurice Ffrench for over 20 yards to get Pitt into FG range, which set the stage once again for a FG by Freshman Kessman, and what did he do? He missed again, this time from 38 yards. Oh boy.
Overtime. Against Youngstown State. You know, the team that they led 21-0 early in the game?
Anyway, Pitt gets the ball on the first OT drive and finally get a TD pass from Browne when he found WR Jester Weah to give them a 28-21 lead. But newsflash, they still had to play defense, which they did when Wells, made his only mistake in the game when he fired into the end zone and his pass was intercepted by Pitt S Bricen Garner. Pitt survives 28-21 to go 1-0.
“At halftime, I told them to slow down a bit and they listened to me, I guess.” Said Narduzzi who is now 2-0 against the Penguins. “Youngstown State has a championship style football team and I think they did a good job.”
What impressed me about Pitt was their running game who seemed to prove that they will be just fine after the departure of Conner. This unit rushed for a total of 208 yards with Ollison leading the way with 91. The other Quadree (Henderson) had 77 yards, Darren Hall had 52 yards and Davis had 8. This was obviously their strength. Kudos to their offensive line who paved the way for these guys and kept QB Max Browne safe, at least in the first half.
Overall, Browne wasn’t that impressive. In the first half, he was steady, but in the second half, he struggled as he made decisions that got him sacked and he also tried to throw the ball into double-coverage 3 times, which could’ve resulted into interceptions. For a QB who knows what it’s like to play with expectations with USC, I expected better from Browne. Here’s hoping he expects more from himself or they will be calling for redshirt sophomore Ben DiNucci. For the game, Browne finished with 140 yards (17-24) a TD and no interceptions. His top receiver was also Ollison who had 35 yards on 5 receptions. TE Matt Flanagan also had 35 yards as well.
The defense on the other hand are still showing signs of their 2016 struggles. After giving up 0 points in the first half, they gave up critical pass plays that resulted in the Penguins tying this game. The pass rush pressured Wells, but weren’t able to get a sack on him. Narduzzi knows they need to make adjustments, especially #6 Penn State waiting for them next week at Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions handled their FCS opponent rather handily in a 52-0 rout over Akron.
“It’s nice to have adversity to see what you’re made of.” Said Narduzzi “In the end it’s a win and it’s a lot to learn about this football team. We’re going to find out who you are & we’ll clean it up.”
Notice he didn’t say the would should.
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