PITTSBURGH — Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi joked, kind of, about his team being as vanilla as possible in its season opener against Youngstown State just to make sure the Panthers didn’t give away too much with a trip to rival Penn State looming.
Narduzzi stressed Pitt would do what it took to win, just maybe not too much. If that was the game plan, the Panthers nearly executed it to perfection.
Dominant in the first half and dormant in the second, the Panthers needed Jester Weah’s leaping 11-yard touchdown catch on the first possession of overtime to escape Youngstown State 28-21 on Saturday. Pitt, which blew a 21-point lead, didn’t seal the victory until Bricen Garner’s end zone interception let the Panthers escape.
“At halftime, I told our guys, ‘Hey, this is too easy, let’s try to slow down little bit, I want to have a little adversity in the game,'” Narduzzi said, tongue firmly in cheek. “They listened to me, I guess.”
Almost too well.
The Penguins outgained Pitt but more than 200 yards in the second half, scored three touchdowns and reached overtime when Panthers freshman kicker Alex Kessman missed a field goal at the gun. Pitt didn’t panic in the extra period, with Weah’s acrobatic grab and Garner’s first collegiate pick helping the Panthers avoid their second opening loss to the FCS-level Penguins in six years.
“Everyone wants that first game to be a blowout,” said Pitt quarterback Max Browne. “We were forced to stand in there and have a fist fight, which a lot of teams may have to wait 3-4 weeks to get that test, we got it Week 1, right away. You learn a lot and you learn when adversity hits we can come through when it’s crunch time.”
Qadree Ollison ran for 91 yards and two touchdowns for the Panthers and finished with a team-high five receptions for 35 yards. Max Browne completed 17 of 24 passes for 140 yards and the winning touchdown in his first start for Pitt after transferring from USC. Browne called it “business as normal” but he spent a considerable portion of the second half under pressure. The Penguins sacked him three times, including a fourth-quarter fumble that set up the tying touchdown.
“There’s room to grow for sure,” Brown said.
Hunter Wells passed for 311 yards and a pair of scores to running back Christian Turner, but Youngstown State’s bid to bookend its 2012 upset of the Panthers ended when Wells overthrew a teammate in the end zone and Garner snagged it out of the air.
“He played a heck of a football game,” Penguins coach Bo Pelini said of Wells. “I told him, as a quarterback, the ball gets picked at the end of the game, and he thinks it’s his fault. It’s not his fault. There were a lot of plays before that where it didn’t need to come down to that.”
Turner finished with five receptions for 124 yards and two touchdowns and added 32 yards rushing. Youngstown State outgained Pitt 418-348.
KEEPING WITH KESSMAN
Kessman, a true freshman, clanked a 28-yard field goal off the right upright early in the fourth quarter that would have given the Panthers a 17-point lead and later saw his potential game-winner sail wide.
“He has to keep his head up even though he missed a field goal,” Pitt receiver/return specialist Quadree Henderson said. “We have faith in him like we had faith in Chris Blewitt last year. We’re going to take this win, we’re going to run with it.”
Youngstown State: The Penguins are eyeing a return trip to the Football Championship Subdivision title game. If they can play with the resilience they showed after trailing by three touchdowns on the road against a Power 5 team, they’ll be another tough out if they reach the playoffs.
Pitt: It’s far too early to get any sort of read on Browne or new offensive coordinator Shawn Watson as the Panthers kept things simple. The offensive line is going to need to shore things up after allowing the Penguins to make things far too uncomfortable far too often. The pass defense struggled to keep tight ends and running backs in check, an issue with Penn State star Saquon Barkley on the schedule next.
Youngstown State: Welcomes Robert Morris in its 2017 home opener next Saturday. The Penguins have won both of the previous meetings with the Colonials, including a 38-6 victory last season.
Pitt: The Panthers provided an early jolt to their renewed rivalry with Penn State last year, edging the Nittany Lions in a 42-39 thriller. The rematch awaits in Happy Valley next Saturday.
“I know you’re supposed to hate them, and now I guess I do hate them,” Browne on Penn State.