Anatomy of a Quarter: How Penn State Used the Third Quarter to Demoralize Pitt

By Nick Polak on September 11, 2018 at 9:30 am
Sep 8, 2018; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; The Penn State Nittany Lions defense lines up against the Pittsburgh Panthers offense during the third quarter at Heinz Field.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

When we look back on Saturday's win over Pitt (Penn State won that football game by a score of 51-6, by the way), most people will just remember the final score, which was 51-6. Before we reached that final margin of victory however, which was 45 points, the teams were fairly close at halftime, with the Lions leading by just 8.

But then the third quarter began. This was where Penn State not only got some things going offensively, but really began to assert their will on the defensive side of things. It was the effort shown in this quarter that ultimately led to the complete Panther breakdown in the fourth quarter which caused them to give up 51 total points while scoring only 6 of their own.

As always, I suggest reading the analysis for the play, then watching the play unfold for the full effect of this piece. You can find the game (linked to start playing right as the third quarter begins) right here.


Possession: Penn State (14:54)
PSU 28 1-10 8-yard run Menet, McGovern, and Gonzalez all get to the second level to lead Sanders to easy yards
PSU 36 2-2 Offensive PI Juwan Johnson called for a pick negating a wheel route TD for Sanders; weak call, but Johnson didn't need to make contact
PSU 21 2-17 6 yard loss McSorley makes the wrong read; Allen has nowhere to go
PSU 15 3-23 18-yard catch Great pocket; Hamler gets open; Hamlin makes a great tackle for Pitt
PSU 33 4-5 52-yard punt  
  • The drive should have been over after two plays. Johnson didn't need to make contact with the defender- Sanders was already going to be gone. Another mental mistake for Johnson.
  • Underrated best play of the half- getting 18 yards on the pass to Hamler to set up a booming Gillikin punt that pinned Pitt very deep in their end.
Possession: Pitt (12:43)
PITT 15 1-10 Incompletion Oruwariye read the comeback immediately and broke it up easily
PITT 15 2-10 4-yard loss Cam Brown immediately sheds the chip block and is in the backfield to make the TFL
PITT 11 3-14 2-yard run Gross-Matos and Miller force Pickett up in the pocket; Windsor sheds his block and makes the play before Pickett escapes
PITT 13 4-12 27-yard punt Woof
  • Aaaand that's why the Hamler completion on the last drive was so huge. Penn State's defense was suffocating in this quarter, and thanks to Gillikin's boot and a terrible Pitt punt, they got to start at the Pitt 40 yard-line.
  • This defense is so fast. Brown was in the backfield in a heartbeat on his tackle for loss, and Yetur Gross-Matos and Shareef Miller both beat their men to the edge on the third-down play. This quarter was fun to watch.
Possession: Penn State (11:10)
PITT 40 1-10 9-yard run Menet and Gonazlez open the hole. Holland seals the edge, and McGovern clears the path- picture perfect
PITT 31 2-1 4-yard run Offensive line occupies everyone, easy path to the first down plus a few extra
PITT 27 1-10 Incompletion Sure touchdown pass dropped by Thompkins in the end zone
PITT 27 2-10 Incompletion Great throw to Johnson on the sideline is dropped; hits him in the fingertips
PITT 27 3-10 3-yard catch Quick out to Holland, McSorley got smashed after the throw; roughing the passer called (really clear and really stupid penalty)
PITT 11 1-10 0-yard run Sanders not able to get enough of his man to pave the way for Mark Allen to get to the edge
PITT 11 2-10 7-yard run Big hole to run through; Sanders earns 2 or 3 extra yards by pushing the pile forward
PITT 4 3-3 4-yard TD run Linebacker has play blown up; McSorley gives a subtle juke step and walks in for the score (21-6 PSU)
  • The weather was poor, but DeAndre Thompkins just has to catch that ball. He had gotten wide open in the end zone and had a perfectly thrown ball. Same with Johnson's. These two are still figuring things out to start the season.
  • The offensive line started to really get going on this drive, with the first run being the perfect example of what a well-blocked running play looks like. Sanders is going to have fun running behind these guys all year.
Possession: Pitt (8:36)
PITT 8 1-10 False start Not the way you want to start a drive after a penalty on the kick return to back you up
PITT 4 1-14 3-yard loss Jan Johnson SHOOTS through the hole, forces Ollison to sidestep which gives Shareef Miller time to get to him
PITT 1 2-17 Holding, Safety Ellison Jordan held after Pickett is forced to try and escape past him to evade Cam Brown on the blitz (23-6 PSU)
  • Brent Pry's defense is relentless. They were flying into the backfield, giving Pickett and his offensive line no chance to set anything up.
  • Great job by Jan Johnson to get into the backfield. Speed is not his calling card, but he blew this play up in a hurry.
Possession: Penn State (7:38)
PSU 35 1-10 3-yard run Pitt's defense did well here to plug the holes and keep Sanders contained
PSU 38 2-7 1-yard run Menet gets beat here; McSorley forced to step up and just get one before being taken down
PSU 39 3-6 Incompletion No chance for a completion; was close to an interception; nice job by Freiermuth to keep it incomplete
PSU 39 4-6 51-yard punt Block in the back called backing Pitt up to their 5 yard-line after a great return
  • A small step back here for the line. Couldn't open a bigger hole for Sanders, and then allowed the pressure on McSorley the following two plays.
  • Blake Gillikin had an amazing night. It's not often you get to talk about how awesome your punter was in a 51-6 win, but he was excellent.
Possession: Pitt (6:10)
PITT 5 1-10 4-yard loss Givens rips straight through the guard, wraps up for an easy TFL
PITT 1 2-14 3-yard run Pickett just goes over the center to try and get himself some breathing room
PITT 4 3-11 9-yard catch Good pressure; Daniel Joseph had an outside shot at a pick here if he saw it sooner; Oruwariye there to clean things up
PITT 13 4-2 42-yard punt  
  • Givens had a great game, but this play may have been his best. He gets into the backfield so fast, you miss it on the broadcast because of a Monday Night football graphic.
  • You can tell that Pitt just has no answers left at this point- they were just trying to survive and go home for the night.
Possession: Penn State (4:13)
PSU 45 1-10 Incompletion High throw; Thompkins no chance to make the play
PSU 45 2-10 Offsides  
50 2-5 Incompletion Should have been a delay of game; McSorley underthrows Hamler who can't make the sliding catch on the sideline
50 3-5 6-yard catch Sanders slips out of the backfield; powers through the defender to earn the first down
PITT 44 1-10 Incompletion Thompkins was wide open on the comeback route, but McSorley threw it into the ground
PITT 44 2-10 1-yard loss Well-designed blitz; Sanders has nowhere to go
PITT 45 3-11 Incompletion Good blitz pickup; McSorley throws wide of Johnson who didn't have any shot to make the play
PITT 45 4-11 41-yard punt Punt is muffed and somehow recovered, but they get backed up inside the 5 yard-line AGAIN as a result
  • Subpar drive for McSorley- he missed on three throws here. The first to Thompkins and last to Johnson were forgivable, but the second missed one to Thompkins was a tough one.
  • Good response from the Pitt defense here to stand up despite Penn State's great field position.
Possession: Pitt (2:30)
PITT 4 1-10 0-yard run No hole to run through; Parsons plugs the running lane and makes the play for no gain
PITT 4 2-10 2-yard run Pitt runs the wildcat; Tariq Castro-Fields is up near the box, able to shed his block and make the stop
PITT 6 3-8 Sack, 3-yard loss Gross-Matos tosses the left tackle aside; he and Jan Johnson meet at Pickett
PITT 3 4-11 36-yard punt, returned for a TD Line drive punt; gunners aren't able to stop momentum trying to catch up with the low kick and Thompkins just skips around the outside (30-6 PSU)
  • I'll save the final stats of the quarter for the final notes, but I'm sure you're sensing the theme here. Pitt finally tried something new here with the wildcat look, but still wasn't able to crack the Lion defense.
  • Great to see Gross-Matos and Johnson share a sack here. Gross-Matos has been a destructive force this year and Johnson is stepping up for a young team in the middle of the defense. Both guys deserve success.
Possession: Pitt (0:28)
PITT 25 1-10 False Start For the first time this quarter, Pitt starts outside of their own 15-yard line, and promptly false start; very on-brand
PITT 20 1-15 4-yard catch Darrin Hall makes the catch in the flat; Oruwariye there quickly to force him out
PITT 24 2-11 Sack, 8-yard loss Shareef Miller goes right around his man; Pickett slips but was toast anyway; Brooks was flying into the backfield on the blitz
  • This drive ended in the fourth quarter, so for those playing along, the drive concluded after an 8-yard catch and another punt.
  • This drive may be the perfect encapsulation of Pitt's night. When they finally, finally weren't backed up to their own end zone, they false start, only throw very short passes and give up a huge sack.

Overall Impressions

The Good
  1. Including the false starts, the Penn State defense held Pitt to -13 yards in the third quarter. Negative. Thirteen. Three tackles for loss, two sacks, and two false starts. Absurd. The defense showed they know how to attack when they're given excellent field position to work with.
  2. Blake. Gillikin. Though Pitt did plenty to shoot themselves in the foot in this regard, their starting field positions in this quarter were as follows: Their own 25, their own 15, their own 8, their own 5, and their own 4.
  3. The run game continued to hum, even on a day in which both defenses were aware that the opposing offenses would need to run the ball to have major success in the rain. Miles Sanders was excellent once again, and the offensive line really started to find a rhythm in this quarter.
  4. The defensive line was much more disruptive with the presence of Kevin Givens. He's still a bit undersized and might not be as effective against Big Ten offensive lines, but he is so quick on the interior, and he's going to deliver lots of sacks into the waiting arms of Yetur Gross-Matos and Shareef Miller this year.
The Bad
  1. Though they came out of the quarter with a 30-6 lead, the offense struggled to find consistency as a whole. The running game was solid, but the passing game was disjointed. Again, the weather played a factor, but things in that area just aren't quite totally in sync just yet. Aside from K.J. Hamler, at least.
  2. Another week, another round of drops for DeAndre Thompkins and Juwan Johnson. Thompkins, in particular, has to figure some things out because a dropped touchdown as wide open as the one from this third quarter could be the difference in a game later this season.
  3. It's a stretch to call this "bad", but the offensive line is still trying to find their consistency, as well. They've shown flashes of excellence and showed more of those flashes in week two than week one, but they're also still prone to a lapse here and there.

    It was a dominant third quarter for Penn State. The defense stood up and ate Pitt's soul, the offense did enough to stretch the lead before going on a tear in the fourth quarter with three consecutive touchdown drives, and the special teams unit was incredible. When we look back on this game, this will be the quarter that should be remembered as the one that set the tone for the blowout win, and perhaps the tone for the rest of the season.

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