COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Penn State’s crunch-time defense could be major wild card in Big Ten East race

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Penn State remained in firm control for large chunks of the game, relying on a versatile rushing attack (led by Journey Brown's 109 yards) and an opportunistic defense to knock off Pittsburgh.

In this forum last week, BATSBY Sports marveled over Penn State’s impending gauntlet to launch Big Ten action, a tricky, bye-free torrent that begins with Maryland (Sept. 27), Purdue (Oct. 5), Iowa (Oct. 12) … and ends with Michigan (Oct. 19) and Michigan State (Oct. 26).

For this week, however, we’ll momentarily look back at the Pittsburgh-Penn State clash from Saturday, specifically targeting the actions — and reactions — of certain teams and coaches during crunch time.

Let’s start with Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi.

With five-plus minutes left in the game and trailing by seven, Pitt’s offense had impressively marched down to the Penn State 1-yard line, seemingly on the brink of forcing a late tie in Happy Valley — or perhaps opting for the go-ahead 2-point try.

However, things got sticky in a hurry. For starters, Pitt couldn’t advance the ball on the first three tries at the 1 (one run, two incomplete passes), losing key encounters to a physical Penn State defense which suddenly rivaled the immense stopping power of a Cardone Industries brake caliper.

And then on fourth down, with the clock dwindling and stakes raising, Narduzzi inexplicably chose to kick the field goal.

Now, if Pitt had been trailing by four, five or six points, a field goal might have made proper sense; but down seven … and just inches from the goal line?

It was a puzzling decision; and frankly, it’s irrelevant that Pitt missed the short-range attempt from 18 yards.

Even if the Panthers failed offensively on fourth down, anything short of an interception-turned-touchback would have pinned Penn State deep in its own end, thus setting up Pittsburgh for another short-field drive to tie or potentially win the game (assuming a subsequent PSU punt).

In the aftermath of defeat, Narduzzi doubled down on his fruitless call, defiantly saying he’d do it all over again.

Therein lies the crux of the matter: No one expects Narduzzi (accomplished head coach with Pitt and former defensive coordinator at Michigan State) to publicly or privately beg for mercy with his decision, exhibiting some form of weakness.

After all, to err is human … and football coaches certainly fall within that scope.

At the same time, program leaders get paid a lot of money to make high-pressure decisions in a matter of seconds.

At the very least, with all the polo-shirt-wearing personnel donning headphones along the Pitt sideline, including coaching interns, surely Narduzzi could tap one for explaining the negative consequences of kicking a superfluous field goal … when trailing by a full touchdown late in the game.

Right?

On the flip side … let’s view things from the Penn State prism:

Quarterback Sean Clifford completed only 14 of 30 passes for 222 yards. No receiver, tight end or running back accounted for more than three receptions; and punter Blake Gillikin got too much screen time on the wet field at Beaver Stadium, booting the ball seven times.

And yet, Penn State remained in firm control for large chunks of the game, relying on a versatile rushing attack (led by Journey Brown’s 109 yards) and opportunistic defense to preserve its standing among the nation’s top 15 teams.

The lesson here: Potential elite teams are not always great, especially against heated rivals. They only need to exhibit flashes of greatness when it matters.

About The Managing Editor

Jay Clemons remains the only sports writer on the planet to capture Cynposis Media’s national award for Sports Blog Of The Year (beating out NBA.com, MLB.com, PGATour.com, The Players’ Tribune in 2015), along with the Fantasy Sports Writers Association’s pre-eminent award for Best Writer (2008). Through the years, Mr. Clemons has been a key figure with numerous blue-chip sports/media brands, namely the Detroit Lions, Sports Illustrated, FOX Sports, Bleacher Report and the NBC/Universal family. With Sports Illustrated (2006-11), Clemons served a triple role with SI.com‘s heralded football coverage—editing Peter King’s famed ‘Monday Morning Quarterback’ column, penning award-winning pieces for NFL and then writing/narrating scripted videos within the NFL and baseball realms. In 2013, Clemons’ first year with the company, FOX Sports South enjoyed a monumental increase of approximately 34 million Web hits in a 12-month cycle—merely posting 11 million hits the previous year. 

Then, over a two-month span in 2014, FOX Sports South amassed 19.5 million Web hits—a 60-day record for any FOX affiliate. And in 2015, Clemons claimed the aforementioned Cynopsis Media award on FOX Sports’ behalf, the company’s only national writing award during that period. Clemons, a graduate of Michigan State University  and Wayne State University, has been an on-camera Web-TV host for Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports. In 2015, he also became the first-ever sports journalism professor at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta.

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