Pitt’s football team will battle the Penn State Nittany Lions under the Heinz Field lights Saturday night in a much anticipated rivalry game. (Yes, this is a rivalry, whether you choose to admit it or not.)
The two programs will clash for the third year in a row, the penultimate matchup of the renewed four-game series. The Panthers defeated the eventual Big Ten Champions 42-39 at Heinz Field in 2016, but the Nittany Lions avenged the defeat in Happy Valley last year by stomping Pitt 33-14.
Coach Pat Narduzzi and the Panthers hosted the Albany Great Danes last weekend and took care of business in game one, handling their opponent 33-7. Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett played sharp, completing his first 13 passes — including two passing touchdowns — and an additional score on the ground.
In contrast, it took Penn State an overtime period to earn a 45-38 win against Appalachian State. Despite avoiding the upset, the scare will almost certainly play a role when they take the field in Pittsburgh Saturday night.
The hard part is determining how their struggles in week one will affect Penn State head coach James Franklin and his team. They may come into Heinz Field shell-shocked and nervous and fall to the Panthers for the second time in three years — or the embarrassment of last week could result in a higher resolve to win this time around, leading the Nittany Lions to thrash the Panthers.
One thing is for certain — these are two very different teams than the ones that faced off last year. Most notably, Pitt has found a star QB in Pickett while Penn State deals with the departure of a once-in-a-generation talent in running back Saquon Barkley.
Pickett may have only a few starts under his belt, but he already has one huge upset to his name. As a true first-year last year, the quarterback was instrumental in Pitt’s season-defining win over Miami, the No. 2 team in the country at the time. Pickett accounted for all three Panther scores, passing for one and rushing for two more. He’s got a great chance to play spoiler once more this weekend against a defense that gave up 451 yards of total offense in week one.
Former Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, who now plays for the New York Giants, was key in keeping the Nittany Lions in the game at Heinz Field in 2016. Despite only rushing for 85 yards, he scored five times — four rushing, one receiving.
Junior Miles Sanders, a graduate of Pittsburgh-based Woodland Hills High School and Barkley’s replacement, is certainly no slouch of a runner and garnered solid experience while backing up Barkley. It will be interesting to see how he measures up against a Pitt defense led by senior captains Quintin Wirginis and Dennis Briggs that only allowed 60 yards against Albany’s rushing attack last weekend.
The game will likely come down to whoever can best stop the opposing offense. Pitt’s secondary has struggled in the past and that struggle continued in the game against Albany. Despite only allowing seven points, the Panthers’ defense gave up 263 yards through the air, including long gains of 40 and 37 yards. Senior quarterback Trace McSorley and the Nittany Lions’ offense present a much tougher task than the Great Danes, so the Panthers will have to bring their best efforts if they want any shot at coming out on top.
The Pitt defensive line and linebackers must pressure McSorley and force him to leave the pocket. This was an area where Appalachian State found success, despite recording just one sack. Pitt recorded five sacks against Albany, including two by redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Keyshon Camp — hopefully defensive coordinator Randy Bates will key in on getting to the quarterback.
However, McSorley isn’t someone that is easily rattled. A potential Heisman candidate, McSorley has been nothing short of incredible throughout his career in Happy Valley. He’s thrown for over 3,500 yards and 28 touchdowns in each of the past two seasons, while running for 850 yards and 18 more scores on the ground.
Defensively, the Nittany Lions struggled mightily in their first game without NFL draftees Marcus Allen, Troy Apke, Grant Haley and Christian Campbell. Penn State allowed almost 500 yards of total offense, recorded only two sacks and their lone interception came on the last play of the game.
Pitt’s running back trio of senior Qadree Ollison, senior Darrin Hall and sophomore A.J. Davis is a balanced platoon that will be hard for Penn State to stop. Pickett, like McSorley, also has a knack for producing yards with his feet. And between senior Rafael Araujo-Lopes, first-year Shocky Jacques-Louis and juniors Tre Tipton and Maurice Ffrench, Pickett has a potent receiving corps that could give Penn State secondary trouble.
It’s worth noting that special teams are often the difference in close games. Ffrench returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Albany and Penn State allowed the Mountaineers to do the same — so some incredible specialist action could be in the cards for Saturday night.
It’s likely we’ll see some exhilarating football at Heinz Field in the third episode of this saga. A high-scoring shootout is a possibility, and it will be a great game for both Nittany Lions and Panthers fans. Whether you’re in the crowd or at home on your couch, you won’t want to miss the latest installment in the rivalry that is Pitt vs. Penn State.
PREDICTION: The combination of Hall, Ollison and Davis will rumble for some big plays on the ground to make Pickett’s life easier in one of the biggest games of his life. Pitt will spread the wealth on offense rather than target one or two players and Pickett will pick apart the Nittany Lions’ defense. McSorley, Sanders and company will undoubtedly rack up some big plays, but they won’t be enough against a Panther secondary that will buckle down when it matters most. The atmosphere at Heinz Field will be too much for this year’s Nittany Lions, and Franklin and the rest of Happy Valley will finally be forced to admit that the matchup against Pitt isn’t just another game.
Pitt: 37, Penn State: 35