Pitt and Penn State should play every year.
Let’s start there.
The 100th meeting between the schools, played after a 40-minute lightning delay and before a crowd of 108,661 at Beaver Stadium, showed the rivalry remains true.
That it came down to the final seconds, a Kenny Pickett Hail Mary that fell incomplete in the end zone, was proof that Pitt could hang with No. 13 Penn State.
That the Nittany Lions escaped with a 17-10 victory Saturday afternoon in the final game for the foreseeable future could be blamed on a fourth-quarter call by Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi that left everyone wondering what he was thinking.
1. Punt to pin: Narduzzi made a controversial choice on a fourth-and-7 at the Penn State 37, calling a timeout before electing to punt.
It was a defensive decision, gambling that Pitt could force a turnover. And the Panthers pinned Penn State at its own 2, putting the defense in position to make a stop.
Instead, on third-and-9, Journey Brown slipped through the grasp of linebacker Elias Reynolds and broke outside. Brown sprinted 85 yards before being chased down by cornerback Damarri Mathis at the Pitt 12.
The defense almost came through when safety Paris Ford picked off a Sean Clifford pass and returned it to the Penn State 45. But a pass interference penalty by linebacker Cam Bright negated the play. Two plays later, Devyn Ford scored on a 1-yard run to give the Lions a 7-0 lead.
Narduzzi quickly learned his lesson.
2. Go for it: On Pitt’s second possession, the Panthers moved methodically from their own 8 to the Penn State 40 before Narduzzi was faced with another fourth-down decision.
On fourth-and-4, Pitt went five-wide and Kenny Pickett found Taysir Mack over the middle for a 4-yard gain and, after measurement, a first down.
The drive stalled on a third-and-goal at the 2, when a swing pass to Maurice Ffrench went for a 5-yard loss. But Alex Kessman converted a 25-yard field goal to put Pitt on the scoreboard, cutting it to 7-3 with 6:34 left in the first half.
Pickett rewarded Narduzzi’s faith, completing 12 of 13 passes on a drive that covered 85 yards on 18 plays. And it was a sign of things to come for the Panthers.
Pickett led Pitt on an eight-play, 78-yard drive highlighted by back-to-back passes of 17 yards to Tre Tipton and 27 yards to Dontavius Butler-Jenkins to set up a 3-yard touchdown run by Vincent Davis for a 10-7 lead with 2:08 left in the second quarter.
And it looked like Pitt could take a lead into halftime.
3. Big-play State: The Nittany Lions benefited from big plays, starting with Brown’s 85-yard run and followed by a 53-yard catch-and-run by KJ Hamler.
On third-and-8 from the Penn State 15, Clifford found Ricky Slade over the middle. Slade got behind three Pitt defenders for a 40-yard gain to the Pitt 45.
When Slade ran for 3 yards on a fourth-and-1 for a first down, Penn State suddenly was closing on field-goal position. But Jaylen Twyman sacked Clifford for an 8-yard loss, forcing Franklin to call timeout.
That he sent out the field-goal unit was a surprise, given that it was a 58-yard attempt. But the Nittany Lions have a kickoff specialist in Jordan Stout who handles long-range field goals, so it was worth a shot.
Stout’s kick cleared the uprights, setting a Penn State record for longest field goal in school history and tying the game at 10-10 at the half.
4. Raising Cain: Penn State rotated its running backs, from Brown to Ford to Slade before giving Noah Cain a crack on the second series of the second half.
Cain ran for gains of 4 and 3 yards before catching a 13-yard pass for a first down. Cain then broke off runs of 9 and 7 yards to the Pitt 31. On third-and-4, Clifford connected with Sullivan-Brown for an 8-yard gain and first down.
That’s when Cain showed he was able to get into the end zone, following a 4-yard run with a 13-yard touchdown to give the Nittany Lions a 17-10 lead they would take into the fourth quarter.
5. What the FG?: With a fourth-and-1 at the Pitt 43, Narduzzi used his second timeout with 7:38 remaining.
The Panthers had to go for it, and new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple’s call was a gem. The Panthers used a play-action fake, sending A.J. over the top before Pickett tossed a pass downfield to tight end Naikia Griffin-Stewart for a 36-yard gain to the Penn State 21.
After a holding penalty pushed the Panthers to the 30, Pickett lofted a pass to Mack near the pylon on the visiting sideline. Mack outjumped cornerback Donovan Johnson for a 29-yard gain to the Penn State 1.
That’s when things went sideways.
On first-and-goal, Pickett rolled right and threw incomplete. On second down, Pickett ran a play-action bootleg but was stopped cold by safety Garrett Taylor. On third down, another rollout pass fell short of Davis in the end zone. And then came the most dumbfounding decision.
Narduzzi went for a field goal.
Instead of playing to win on the road – against an arch-rival, no less – the Pitt coach went for three points while trailing by seven with 4:59 and one timeout remaining only to see Kessman’s kick bounce off the left upright.
The decision – and outcome – cost the Panthers the game.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .