STATE COLLEGE – Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett’s pass lingered in the air for what seemed like an eternity.
The 108,611 fans inside of Beaver Stadium took a collective gasp as Pickett’s attempt sailed toward the end zone, and together they exhaled when Penn State linebacker Cam Brown’s hand knocked the football to the turf as time expired in the fourth quarter.
Brown’s deflection preserved No. 13 Penn State’s 17-10 win over Pittsburgh, and along with it, bragging rights in the 100th and final scheduled meeting in the in-state rivalry. Penn State (3-0) upped its series advantage to 53-43-4.
“We had a chance to meet on the sideline right there and were talking about that we’re not going to let them score,” Penn State linebacker Jan Johnson said. “We’re going to do everything we can to prevent a touchdown. We got after the quarterback and made him uncomfortable and he was unable to throw the ball well.”
With 8:43 left in the game and Pittsburgh trailing by seven points, the Panthers took over at their 34 following a Penn State kick-catch interference call during a punt.
Pickett had been successful at chipping away at the Nittany Lion secondary for the better part of three quarters. He was 22 of 29 for 188 yards through the first three periods and opened Pittsburgh’s (1-2) second drive of the fourth with two consecutive completions.
On fourth-and-1, Pickett then tossed a 36-yard completion to Nakia Griffin-Stewart to push the Panthers into Penn State territory at the 21. Two plays and one penalty later, Pickett connected with Taysir Mack on a 29-yard play. Mack plucked the football from the air and fell to the turf with it at the Penn State 1-yard line.
“It was a great catch, a great throw,” Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons said.
Pittsburgh’s following sequence included two incompletions and a run for no gain that gave the Panthers fourth-and-goal from Penn State’s 1.
Rather than go for the touchdown, Panthers kicker Alex Kessman’s 19-yard field goal attempt ricocheted off the left upright.
“I thought it was a really big momentum swinger,” Parsons said. “That touchdown or any points would’ve really changed the game, and I feel like the guys on the field did a really great job standing up. That’s something we preach every day in practice. Setting change and really making stops when our backs are against the wall.”
Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi defended his decision to kick the field goal.
“Because you need two scores to win a football game unless you are playing for overtime,” he said of why the Panthers kicked. “We’re trying to win a football game, so you know.”
Penn State’s offense netted just 25 yards on the ensuing drive, but Brown’s last-second deflection staved off the comeback.
Meadville High graduate Journey Brown recorded the first start of his collegiate career. He didn’t need long to affirm Penn State coach James Franklin’s decision to give him the nod over Ricky Slade, who started the first two games of the season.
On Brown’s second carry, he squeezed through the first level of the Panthers defense. Brown then shifted right – and out of the grasp of a pair of defenders – and darted toward the sideline before cutting back for an 85-yard gain. Brown’s run was the second-longest non-scoring run in Penn State history.
Brown finished with a game-high 109 yards on 10 carries. He said when he hits the open field and accelerates, his surroundings become frozen in time.
“We learned this in one of my classes, it’s like a flow concept,” he said. “Everything just slows down. I don’t hear the crowd, I just hear myself breathing and see everything around me. Then when I got tackled, that was when I started hearing the crowd and knew it was an energetic play.”
Although Brown received the start, Penn State again deployed all four of its backs. Noah Cain gained 40 yards and one touchdown on six carries, and he also caught one pass for 13 yards. Devyn Ford had five carries for 9 yards and one touchdown. Ricky Slade finished with 4 yards on four carries and had a 40-yard reception.
Cain scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 13-yard run in the third quarter.
“He is not going to do a whole lot that blows you away; he’s just so productive,” Franklin said. “He’s going to get a 4-yard run and fall for 6. He’s going to get a 3-yard run and fall for 5. That was one of the things that on the headset right after, on that last drive we probably should have subbed him in because that would have been a good situation for his style of running.”
Penn State’s defense again flashed its resilience. After playing to a 10-all tie at halftime, the Nittany Lion defense held Pittsburgh to just 8 yards in the third quarter.
The Nittany Lions were stingy against the run, holding Pittsburgh to 24 yards on the ground. While the Panthers’ run game stalled, Penn State’s defense was vulnerable against the pass. Pickett’s 372 yards passing was a career-best, as were his 51 attempts.
Penn State sacked Pickett just two times.
Saturday marked Parsons’ second time facing Pittsburgh, and his first as a starter. As a Harrisburg native, he is all too familiar with the history of the rivalry. Entering the final game in the series, Parsons said he wanted to leave an impact that would be remembered. He did just that. Parsons finished with a team-high nine tackles – including two tackles for loss – one pass break up and one quarterback hurry.
“One of the main things I was thinking about is how would I, or how would we be remembered?” Parsons said. “Obviously, with this being the last game, it goes so deep into this rivalry. This is the last game, how will we be remembered? That’s just something I really thought about.”