Prediction: Lions loom over Panthers


Pitt former running back James Conner rushed for 117 yards and two touchdowns in the Panthers' 42-39 victory over Penn State last year. (TPN file photo)

By David Leftwich | Senior Staff Writer

When Ryan Lewis hauled in the last season’s game-clinching interception against Penn State, he secured a year of bragging rights. Regardless of Penn State’s ultimate Big Ten success last year, Pitt fans could flaunt their 42-39 triumph.

But as the renewed rivalry with Penn State approaches its second season, it looks like these bragging rights are not going to belong to the Panthers for much longer. Not only is Penn State the favorite, they may just decimate Pitt.

When the Panthers squared off against the Nittany Lions last year, Pitt only saw a preview of the offensive show then-sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley and sophomore running back Saquon Barkley put on during the season.

In last year’s matchup, the Panthers managed to hold Barkley to 85 yards, but he still found his way into the end zone a whopping five times. Through the air, McSorley torched the Panthers defense for 332 yards and a touchdown, but undermined the team’s efforts with four fumbles and an interception.

During the rest of the season, the two developed into one of the most explosive offensive duos in college football. Barkley racked up over 1,800 total yards and 22 touchdowns, while McSorley threw for over 3,500 yards and 29 touchdowns, leading the team to the Big Ten title.

Headed into their junior campaigns, the two are expected to continue with that kind of success. They both are among the 10 players selected as preseason All-Big Ten, and both are on the Walter Camp Player of the Year Preseason Watch List.

While these honors are all preseason speculation, they showed their worth in the Nittany Lions’ 52-0 rout of Akron last weekend.

Barkley mowed through the Zips’ defense, compiling 172 yards and two touchdowns on the ground on just 14 carries. McSorley threw for two touchdowns and ran for another, not to mention the Penn state defense, which completely stifled the Zips, holding them to 159 total yards for the game.

Penn State is a legitimate force this season and a much stronger team than they were when they squared off against the Panthers early last season. This doesn’t look good for the Panthers whose play has faltered.

With many positions to fill after last season, there looked to be drop-offs on both sides of the ball in the Panther’s first game of the season Saturday against Youngstown State.

When Youngstown State made adjustments and stifled the Panther running attack in the second half, the offensive line and redshirt senior Max Browne showed their weaknesses.

Browne abandoned ineffective screen passes in favor of deeper routes, but didn’t have time to make many plays because the offensive line struggled in pass protection.

Even when Browne was given time to make plays, he couldn’t connect with his receivers, made bad decisions with the ball, and only finished with 140 passing yards.

On the defensive side, the Panthers don’t look to be in much better shape.

After shutting out the Penguins in the first half, the defense gave up 21 points in the second half, and the Penguins outgained the Panthers by 70 yards for the game.

The defense struggled to generate a pass rush, only recording one sack. They also struggled to cover the Penguins’ receivers. YSU made the Panthers pay the price, putting up over 300 yards through the air last Saturday.

Ejuan Price and Shakir Soto held last season’s pass rushing roles, but those remain unfilled. The suspension of junior starting defensive back Jordan Whitehead has hurt the defense’s ability to defend on the outside.

All of these team struggles came against a good FCS team in Youngstown State. But the Penguins are nowhere near as talented as Penn State.

For Pitt to have a shot against Penn State, they will need to slow down Barkley and McSorley. Whether this be through turnovers, as it was last year, or stifling their production, Pitt cannot afford big performances from these two.

On the offensive side, Browne and his line will need to pick up their game to produce against the Penn State defense. Veteran contributors such as junior wide receiver Quadree Henderson and redshirt junior running back Qadree Ollison will need to have huge games for things to go the Panthers’ way.

PREDICTION: In last year’s game, the Panthers grabbed an early lead and exploited Nittany Lion turnovers to hold on in a thriller. This year, there is no home field advantage, the Nittany Lions are a stronger team, and the Panthers are reeling from losses all over the field.

If the Panthers commit to stopping Barkley, McSorley will exploit a weak Panthers secondary and Barkley may still go off. He’s that good. Pay too much attention to McSorley, and Barkley will inevitably hurt the Panthers’ defense. Either way, the Nittany Lion offense is in for a big day.

The Panther offense will try keeping pace with the Nittany Lions, but Penn State will focus on stopping the Panthers’ strong running attack. If they can slow it down, Browne will not be able to make plays.

With big games from Barkley and McSorley, the Panthers offense will not be able to keep up, leading to the first loss of the season.

Panthers 20, Nittany Lions 42.

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