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Game 1 Preview: Youngstown State

Game 1 Preview: Youngstown State

THE MATCHUP: PITT (0-0) VS YOUNGSTOWN STATE (0-0)
WHEN: 1:00 P.M. EST
WHERE: HEINZ FIELD, PITTBURGH, PA
HOW TO WATCH: ACC NETWORK EXTRA
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK

The 2017 Pitt football season kicks off at home Saturday against a familiar opponent, the Youngstown State Penguins.

Now, before I delve into the Penguins’ squad, let me get the one obligatory note out of the way that comes to every Panther fan’s mind when they see Youngstown State on the schedule: the Penguins upset Pitt in the 2012 season opener at Heinz Field, and even though that game will have little-to-no influence on Saturday’s outcome, it will still be on the minds of everyone clad in blue and gold.

With that out of the way, let’s begin.

YSU enters Saturday under third-year head coach, Bo Pelini. The Penguins are fresh off of a 12-4 season which saw them advance all the way to the FCS Championship game, where they lost to James Madison, 28-14. Many marquee contributors from that squad have either graduated or left the program, but the Penguins still return enough talent to enter the season ranked 8th in the FCS Coaches Poll.

At quarterback, 6-foot-5-inch, 215-pound Hunter Wells returns for Youngstown State after starting the final nine games of their 2016 season. Wells completed 135 of 216 passes for 1,714 yards, 11 touchdowns and 5 interceptions last year while leading the Penguins on their run to the FCS Championship game. Panther fans may remember Wells from 2015, when he completed 19-of-38 passes for 274 yards and a touchdown in Pitt’s narrow 45-37 victory at Heinz Field.

Wells will have most of his top receiving targets from 2016 on Saturday. Youngstown State returns its leader in receptions in 5-foot-11-inch senior receiver, Alvin Bailey. Last year, Bailey caught 47 passes for 511 yards and 5 touchdowns. Joining Bailey at receiver is Damoun Patterson, a 6-foot-2-inch, 190-pound senior who registered 20 receptions for 484 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2016. Patterson’s size and 24.2 yards-per-catch qualify him as the type of receiver that gave the Panthers’ secondary trouble last season. Also, all of the Penguins’ tight ends return, including starter Kevin Rader, a graduate of Pine-Richland High School.

On the ground, the Penguins must replace Jody Webb and Martin Ruiz, a duo of running backs who each topped 1,000 yards in 2016. Tevin McCaster, a 5-foot-10-inch, 195-pound junior from New Castle, Pennsylvania, is slated to start and should assume the role of primary back this season. McCaster came on strong in the FCS playoffs last season following the late season suspension of Ruiz, and has led the YSU running back corps through the offseason.

The Penguins’ offensive line is headed by left tackle Justin Spencer. Spencer, a 3-year starter, is a STATS Inc. third team preseason All-American. The 6-foot-5-inch, 300-pound native of Indiana, Pennsylvania is joined by fellow returning starters Vitas Hrynkiewicz (center) and Gavin Wiggins (guard). One additional lineman of note is backup right tackle Jeff Rotheram, a player whose last name may trigger the ear of Pitt fans. Jeff Rotheram, brother of former Panther guard Matt Rotheram, appeared in all 16 games on special teams last year and will likely play on the same field where he watched his brother excel just a few seasons ago.

On the other side of the ball, Youngstown State’s defense will face a Pitt offense breaking in its third offensive coordinator in as many years. In last season’s opener, the Panthers restricted their offense against FCS opponent Villanova, saving the unveiling of Matt Canada’s record-breaking playbook for Penn State. Will the Penguins receive the same treatment as Villanova, or will Shawn Watson test his system despite having Penn State waiting in the on-deck circle once again?

“There’s some things we’re going to hold, but we’re going out to win that football game,” Narduzzi said Monday, regarding Pitt’s strategy heading into the game. “That’s what it comes down to.”

Youngstown State’s defense deserves plenty of credit for propelling the Penguins to the FCS championship game in 2016, and much of their defensive success can be attributed to defensive ends Derek Rivers and Avery Moss. Fortunately for Pitt’s offensive line, which will be reshuffled and without three of its starters from 2016, Rivers and Moss were both selected in this year’s NFL Draft. The Penguins will have to replace the duo’s 117 total tackles, 37 tackles-for-loss, 26 sacks and 5 forced fumbles with unproven pass rushers. However, YSU returns defensive tackles Donald Mesier and Savon Smith, providing experience on the interior to aid the inexperience on each edge.

In addition to losing two NFL-caliber pass rushers, the Penguins must also replace all four primary starters in their secondary. Returning to the group, though, is safety Jalyn Powell. Powell, a transfer from Michigan State, appeared in all sixteen games in 2016, starting four contests, and registering 49 total tackles, 1 sack and 2 interceptions.

Linebacker is the most experienced, productive position group on defense for the Penguins. Armand Dellovade, a 6-foot, 215-pound junior graduate of West Allegheny High School, earned second-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference honors in 2016 after accumulating 105 total tackles, 11.5 tackles-for-loss and 3 sacks. On Monday, Pat Narduzzi heaped praise upon Dellovade, asserting that he wishes the backer was a member of the Pitt program.

Senior linebacker Lee Wright will join Dellovade as the Penguins’ other linebacker to watch. Wright, who led Youngstown State in tackles in 2015, missed the entire 2016 regular season due to suspension, but returned for the FCS playoffs.

On special teams, Youngstown State possesses a 2016 second-team All-MVFC selection in punter Mark Schuler. Schuler, selected as the lone punter on the 2017 preseason All-MVFC team, will be charged with punting to – or perhaps away from – 2016 All-American return specialist Quadree Henderson. Henderson, who returned three kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns last season, is a threat to score every time he touches the ball.

Although both teams will field much different teams than the ones that posted the following statistics, below is this week’s statistical comparison (using 2016 numbers):

PITT YSU
  PITT OPPONENTS YSU OPPONENTS
POINTS SCORED 532 458 442 319
Points Per Game 40.92 35.23 27.6 19.9
FIRST DOWNS 266 303 337 262
Rushing 128 87 193 111
Passing 115 193 121 126
Penalty 23 23 23 25
RUSHING YARDAGE 2926 1555 3883 2063
Yards Gained Rushing 3218 1952 4228 2501
Yards Lost Rushing 292 397 345 438
Rushing Attempts 542 436 775 557
Average Yards Per Rush 5.4 3.6 5.0 3.7
Average Yards Per Game 225.1 119.6 242.7 128.9
Rushing Touchdowns 36 28 34 12
PASSING YARDAGE 2882 4331 2883 3057
Comp-Att-Int 324-189-9 549-350-9 213-363-14 219-434-12
Average Yards Per Game 221.7 333.2 180.2 191.1
Passing Touchdowns 28 28 18 26
TOTAL OFFENSE 5808 5886 6766 5120
Total Plays 866 985 1138 991
Average Yards Per Play 6.7 6.0 5.9 5.2
Average Yards Per Game 446.8 452.8 422.9 320.0
KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS 39 – 1037 66 – 1297 52 – 1022 58 – 1106
PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS 17 – 253 29 – 236 32 – 311 21 – 118
INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS 9 – 182 9 – 73 12 – 121 14 – 150
KICK RETURN AVERAGE 26.6 19.7 19.7 19.1
PUNT RETURN AVERAGE 14.9 8.1 9.7 5.6
INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE 20.22 8.11 10.1 10.7
FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST 17 – 9 15 – 10 24 – 11 19 – 11
PENALTIES – YARDS 74 – 647 82 – 703 83 – 837 75 – 719
Average Per Game 49.8 54.1 52.3 44.9
PUNTS – YARDS 56 – 2385 65 – 2616 67 – 2755 99 – 3866
Average Yards Per Punt 42.59 40.25 41.1 39.1
Net Yards Per Punt 36.2 36.1 36.4 35.1
TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME 30:53 29:07 33:52 26:08
3rd-DOWN CONVERSIONS 79/174 80/197 117/245 72/215
3rd-Down Percentage 45% 41% 48% 33%
4th-Down CONVERSIONS 7/13 21/28 11/21 5/15
4th Down Percentage 54% 75% 52% 33%
SACKS BY – YARDS 43 – 299 10 – 75 49 – 333 29 – 144
FIELD GOALS/ATTEMPTS 10/17 16/19 20/33 16/18
RED-ZONE TOUCHDOWNS/ATTEMPTS 45/59 50/58 36/68 24/42

The season opener against Youngstown State kicks off at 1:00p.m Saturday at Heinz Field. It can be watched on ACC Network Extra, and can be heard on 93.7 the Fan. As always, Pittsburgh Sports Now and its staff will provide in-game updates and observations via Twitter.

Pitt will serve as Youngstown State’s early season test versus an FBS opponent in 2017. In the Penguins’ FBS matchup last season, Youngstown State fell 38-21 to the West Virginia Mountaineers in Morgantown, West Virginia. The Penguins were tied with the Mountaineers at halftime, keeping the score close before West Virginia posted seventeen unanswered points.

Conversely, Youngstown State will, or rather should, serve as an early season warm-up for Pitt leading up to a pair of contests against AP Top-10 opponents, Penn State and Oklahoma State.

As YSU proved in 2012, warm-up games can easily turn into trap games, though. The Penguins are 4-1-1 all-time in season openers after appearing in the FCS Championship game and should not be underestimated.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker

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