Pitt-Penn State Preview: Tight matchup could come down to the last drive

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Pitt-Penn State Preview: Tight matchup could come down to the last drive

Jeff Ahearn / Senior Staff Photographer.

Jeff Ahearn / Senior Staff Photographer.

Jeff Ahearn / Senior Staff Photographer.

Jeff Ahearn / Senior Staff Photographer.

By Dan Sostek / Senior Staff Writer

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Pitt vs. Penn State: an in-state rivalry that needs no introduction. In a game that is projected to be the most attended sporting event ever in the city of Pittsburgh, two flawed yet evenly matched teams will meet at Heinz Field at noon on Saturday.

Here are a few key players and matchups to keep an eye on in this year’s Keystone Classic.

To infinity and Saquon

While James Conner continues to inspire and Jordan Whitehead is a wizard in the defensive backfield, the best player on the field Saturday may very well be Penn State tailback Saquon Barkley.

The 5-foot-11, 223-pound sophomore running back was dynamic as a freshman, rushing for over 1,000 yards and tallying nearly six yards a carry. He continued that momentum into 2016, running for 105 yards on 22 rushes in the opener.

Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi thinks Barkley is in select company.

“Saquon Barkley is maybe the best tailback in the country,” Narduzzi said earlier this week. “I don’t look at them all, but he is a great tailback, and he is a guy that will be a priority to stop.”

Pitt’s front seven is obviously tougher than Kent State –– Penn State’s week one opponent. “War daddy” defensive tackle Tyrique Jarrett will be manning the middle of the line and fellow senior Matt Galambos –– a solid run defender –– will be stationed at middle linebacker.

The Panthers will need to contain Barkley early. The Nittany Lions’ star sophomore back is prone to big plays, which could quiet an electric Heinz Field atmosphere if he pulls off a string of them in the first half.

Mobile boost

Last season, Pitt had its share of struggles defending mobile quarterbacks, highlighted by Navy’s Keenan Reynolds’ utter annihilation of Pitt’s defense in Navy’s 44-28 win in the Military Bowl.

No one’s going to confuse Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley with a talent such as Reynolds, but Pitt is going to need to wrap up McSorley. The first-time signal caller is a solid runner whom Narduzzi thinks the Nittany Lions will rely on even more this week.

“They’ve got quarterback runs and quarterback keepers now,” Narduzzi said in his Monday press conference. “He’s going to carry the ball, and, in big games, I’d imagine he’s going to carry it even more.”

McSorley carried the ball 14 times for 47 yards last week against Kent State, while Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman accounted for minus-8 yards on 3 carries against Villanova.

Someone to rely on

James Conner’s two touchdowns against Villanova — his first since beating cancer and a torn MCL — were moments most Pitt fans will remember for a long time. But after his first game back, Conner admitted that he still has a lot of work to do.

Narduzzi acknowledged as much in his postgame press conference and reiterated the need for Conner to try to settle down a bit in the backfield.

“He was a little rusty,” Narduzzi said. “As you watch it, when he hit the hole he did well –– but when he tried to do too much, he wasn’t as effective.”

Pitt will need the bruising running back to return to form sooner rather than later, as the passing offense looked inept against an FCS team in week one. With a mostly inexperienced wide receiver corps, Pitt is going to have to rely on their running game heavily until either Quadree Henderson, Dontez Ford or Jester Weah emerge as a go-to target.

Expect more carries for Darrin Hall, the sophomore tailback who only carried the ball six times against Villanova, as well as Qadree Ollison, who seemed to be the clear backup to Conner in week one.

PREDICTION: In a gritty, low-scoring affair, a bounce on a fumble or deflection will be a deciding factor in the game. These teams are evenly matched, with equal shares of star power and question marks. With rain in the forecast, the trenches will also have a heavy impact on the outcome. But the Panthers hold the advantage on both the offensive and defensive lines and Pitt will win, 20-17.

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