PITT VS. PENN STATE – 12:00 P.M. EST, HEINZ FIELD, PITTSBURGH, PA
RADIO: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK
The long wait for the start of Pitt’s football season ended this past weekend with a 28-7 Panther victory over Villanova at Heinz Field. This weekend, a much longer wait ends as the arch-rival Penn State Nittany Lions come to town for the first Pitt-Penn State matchup since Pitt’s 12-0 victory at Three Rivers Stadium in 2000. Today, we preview the newly branded Keystone Classic so that Pitt fans can familiarize themselves with a team they have not met on the field in far too long.
Penn State’s 2015 season ended disappointingly with four straight losses, resulting in a 7-6 overall record. Their offseason was riddled with coaching changes, negative recruiting, and the continuing aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. However, this past Saturday the team was able to put these distractions aside as they earned a 33-13 victory over the Kent State Golden Flashes to start the season.
Going into the game against Kent State, questions surrounded a Penn State defense that experienced significant losses following a 2015 that saw them rank 14th nationally in total defense. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop left for the same position at Tennessee. Consensus All-American and Lombardi Award winning defensive end Carl Nassib graduated. All-Big Ten defensive tackle Austin Johnson was drafted 43rd overall in the 2016 NFL draft, and defensive tackle Anthony Zettel graduated following a highly productive career. These three players combined for 171 tackles, 45.5 tackles for loss, 26 sacks, and eight forced fumbles last year. Penn State promoted co-defensive coordinator Brent Pry to defensive coordinator this offseason; but who would replace the talent on the field, and would they be able to approach the lofty statistics of their predecessors?
As Bob Flounders at Pennlive.com noted, Penn State rotated as many as 10 players on the defensive line against Kent State in an attempt to replace last year’s big three. Redshirt junior Garrett Sickles, the experienced veteran of the group with 12 starts in 2015, led the way with six tackles, a sack, and 1.5 tackles for loss. Redshirt freshman defensive end Shareef Miller highlighted the newcomers with five tackles and two sacks. Redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Antoine White also tallied five total tackles and a sack, tying his sack total from 2015 in one game.
Behind a reconstructed front four were familiar faces for the Penn State. After establishing himself as the Nittany Lions’ leading tackler in 2015 (39 solo tackles, 100 tackles overall), 6’1” 232 pound junior linebacker Jason Cabinda assumed that role again leading PSU with 11 tackles, five of which were solo. Senior linebacker Brandon Bell returned for his third year as a starter and finished with eight tackles and an interception. Junior safety Marcus Allen, PSU’s second leading tackler in 2015, recorded five total tackles, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery (Pitt fans may be interested to know that Allen is the godson of former Panther running back Curtis Martin). Overall, the defense allowed just 279 yards of total offense and a pair of field goals on the day, adding seven sacks and two interceptions to complete an impressive season debut.
This week, Penn State’s defense will face a Panther offense that coach Narduzzi admitted in his Monday press conference “never got in sync” versus Villanova. Specifically, the Panther coach illuminated Pitt’s struggles in the running game.
“They packed a lot of guys in the box. We don’t really care if you pack them in the box, we still want to be able to run the ball on you. It’s just a matter of execution.”
Villanova managed to hold James Conner under 100 yards in his emotional first game back from Cancer and injury, a feat not easily achieved for defenses. He has eclipsed 100 yards 11 times in his career and currently sits ninth on Pitt’s list of all-time leading rushers with 2,694 career yards. While Villanova’s defensive game plan contributed to Conner’s containment, Narduzzi did not excuse his star running back from some of the blame.
“He was a little rusty. As you watch it, when he hit the hole he did it well; but when he tried to do too much, he wasn’t as effective.”
Switching sides of the ball, Penn State’s offense opened 2016 with questions as well. Following the 2015 season, James Franklin replaced offensive coordinator John Donovan with Fordham’s Joe Moorhead. Moorhead, a former graduate assistant at Pitt (1998-1999), left his head coaching job to install an up-tempo spread offense at PSU and revive a Nittany Lion offense that finished 101st nationally in 2015. Also, PSU’s starting quarterback for the past three years, Christian Hackenberg, left a year early for the NFL. Redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley, building off of the experience gained after nearly orchestrating a 21-point comeback over Georgia in last year’s TaxSlayer bowl, won the starting quarterback position this offseason. He inherits the reigns of an offense that returns a talented group of skill position players. Sophomore running back Saquon Barkley set the freshman rushing record at Penn State in 2015 with 1,076 yards, leading to Freshman All-America honors and high expectations for 2016. 6’1” 205 pound junior receiver Chris Godwin returns following a sophomore campaign that saw him register 69 receptions for 1,101 yards and 5 touchdowns. DaeSean Hamilton, a senior wide receiver who sits 7th all-time in receptions and 15th all-time in receiving yards for the Nittany Lions, also returns as a valuable pass catcher.
Against Kent State, McSorley went 16 of 31 through the air for 209 yards and 2 touchdowns, earning the overall praise of head coach James Franklin. Chris Godwin led the Nittany Lions in receiving with seven receptions for 67 yards, with tight end Mike Gesicki adding three receptions for 49 yards and a touchdown. On the ground, Saquon Barkley led PSU rushers with 105 yards on 22 carries and one touchdown even though, as James Franklin noted in his postgame conference, Kent State chose to “overload the box with the safeties under ten yards.” McSorley added 47 yards on 14 carries as the only other ball carrier to register significant rushing statistics.
While the skill position players showed promise in the opener, Penn State analysts like Bob Flounders believe that the poor offensive line play in 2015 has not been rectified. Redshirt junior left tackle Brandon Mahon allowed a sack fumble on Trace McSorley which resulted in a touchdown return for the Golden Flashes. Also of note, Saquon Barkley had a touchdown negated on a holding call committed by the line.
The Nittany Lion offense will face a stout Panther defense that allowed just 172 yards of total offense and no scores in their opener. Pitt’s defense registered six sacks and an interception on the day. All-ACC senior defensive end Ejuan Price continued his 2015 form with 1.5 sacks, LB Mike Caprara also tallied 1.5 sacks; and Pitt’s secondary registered three sacks, with Junior cornerback Avonte Maddox sacking Villanova’s Zach Bednarczyk twice, and safety Dennis Briggs adding one of his own.
Penn State’s special teams units turned in solid performances in week 1. They went 2/2 on field goals, compiled six touchbacks, and maintained a net punt average of 43.3 yards. Pitt, on the other hand, received mixed results on special teams. Senior kicker Chris Blewitt went 0-2 on field goals on a day that saw him become the all-time career kick scoring leader after four extra points. Ryan Winslow’s punts weren’t visually appealing, although his net punt average of 36.8 yards met coach Narduzzi’s expectations. Quadree Henderson, who displayed speed and big play potential throughout the day, salvaged Pitt’s special teams’ grade with a 96 yard kickoff return for a touchdown to begin the second half. It was Henderson’s second straight game with a kickoff return for a touchdown, dating back to last season.
Below is how the two teams compare through one game:
|Points Per Game||28.0||7.0||33.0||13.0|
|Yards Gained Rushing||114||116||176||219|
|Yards Lost Rushing||28||63||31||69|
|Average Yards Per Rush||2.5||1.6||3.8||3.7|
|Average Yards Per Game||86.0||53.0||145.0||150.0|
|Average Yards Per Pass||5.3||3.7||6.7||4.6|
|Average Yards Per Catch||9.2||7.4||13.1||9.2|
|Average Yards Per Game||175.0||119.0||209.0||129.0|
|Average Yards Per Play||3.9||2.6||5.1||4.0|
|Average Yards Per Game||261.0||172.0||354.0||279.0|
|KICK RETURNS – YARDS – TD||2-118-1||4-56-0||4-88-0||1-22-0|
|PUNT RETURNS –YARDS – TD||4-58-0||1-13-0||4-22-0||2-2-0|
|INTERCEPTIONS – RETURN YARDS||1-0||0-0||2-30||0-0|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||59.0||14.0||22.0||22.0|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||14.5||13.0||5.5||1.0|
|FUMBLES / FUMBLES LOST||1/1||2/1||2/1||2/1|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||3-40||7-55||5-55||6-47|
|Average Per Game||40.0||55.0||55.0||47.0|
|PUNTS – YARDS||6-254||9-354||6-282||6-246|
|Average Yards Per Punt||42.3||39.3||47.0||41.0|
|Net Yards Per Punt||36.8||32.9||43.3||37.3|
|KICKOFFS – YARDS||5-302||2-124||7-453||4-242|
|Average Yards Per Kickoff||60.4||62.0||64.7||60.5|
|Net Yards Per Kickoff||44.2||3.0||40.1||38.5|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||29:43||30:17||27:04||32:56|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||6-58||1-16||7-54||1-11|
|PAT’S MADE / ATTEMPTED||4/4||1/1||3/3||1/1|
This weekend has the potential to provide more than just a win and bragging rights for one team. As Mike Vukovcan reported earlier this week, many of Pitt’s top current and future recruits will attend Saturday’s game. Although Pitt and Penn State have not met on the field in years, their rivalry in the recruiting circuit never ceased. Two years ago, Kittanning’s Nick Bowers and Altoona’s Kevin Givens flipped their commitments from Pitt to Penn State at the very end of the recruiting cycle. Last year, Clairton’s Aaron Mathews flipped from Penn State to Pitt in the same fashion, and 4-star Central Catholic star Damar Hamlin selected the Panthers over PSU (and Ohio State) live on KDKA. Some of the recruits that will be in attendance on Saturday, like Clairton’s Lamont Wade and Aliquippa’s Kwantel Raines, remain uncommitted and pursued by both teams.
“It carries significance off the field after the game,” said Narduzzi concerning the recruiting implications of Saturday’s game. “It’s not do-or-die; we’re going to get the players we get…They want to know which ship is floating and strong.”
Penn State will be fielding a full team this week, with no significant injuries reported on either side of the ball. Due to the limited media interaction this week, Pitt’s injury situation is slightly murkier. Pat Narduzzi declared that Elijah Zeise and Dewayne Hendrix were day-to-day at his press conference this week, days after both players were seen in walking boots following injuries sustained versus Villanova. It is also unclear whether expected contributors like cornerback Damar Hamlin, fullback George Aston, or wide receiver Zach Challingsworth will play on Saturday. None of the three aforementioned players participated in the season opener.
Fans can watch the game at noon this weekend on ESPN, or listen to it on 93.7 The Fan. Pittsburgh Sports Now and its writers will also provide updates and in-game observations via Twitter throughout the game.
Saturday is the 97th time the in-state rivals meet in a series that Penn State leads 50-42-4. Pitt, the betting favorite, should be laser focused following a week of closed practices and no player-media contact.
After 16 years, Pitt fans should have no problem being laser focused, too.