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What Does Pitt Need to Do to Beat Penn State?



Hopefully the Pitt football players are staying off social media and the internet this week because they’d just be reading how they have no chance this Saturday.

Reality is that Pitt finds themselves 20.5 point underdogs to the #4 team in the country. Reality is that Penn State is a really, really good team especially on offense. Reality is that this might be the most difficult, hostile environment some of these Pitt players will ever play in. Reality is that given the opportunity James Franklin would like to beat Pitt and would like to beat them really bad.

Another reality is that despite what many think, Pat Narduzzi will have Pitt ready and I believe they’re capable of keeping this game close and possibly pulling off the monumental upset.

I’m not saying it’s going to happen but I think it’s crazy to think it’s impossible. However, for that to happen both sides of the ball and the coaching staff need to be better than they were against Youngstown State.

What does Pitt need to do to have a chance?


Although the Penn State coaches are no doubt preparing for it, I think Pitt needs to have a similar approach on offense as they did in 2016. Pitt needs to have a huge advantage in time of possession. Until all the new faces are comfortable, the less time the Pitt defense spends on the field the better. A 12 play, 80 yard, 6 minute drive would be better than a 2 play touchdown drive. A winning recipe would be to grind things out and try to out physical Penn State. Getting lineman Alex Bookser back is a very big addition for the Panthers offense. Pitt needs to have success on first down and stay out of second and long plays.

Can Pitt put up similar numbers this year?

Rushing stats from last year’s game: 

  • 56 rushing attempts for 341 yards (6.1 yards per attempt
  • Time of possession: Pitt 35:29 – Penn State 24:31

James Conner, September 10, 2016. — DAVID HAGUE


James Conner won’t be around to get the bulk of the carries so it’ll be time for the talent on the running back depth chart to step up. Although he got the majority of carries on Saturday, I think it would be a mistake to rely mostly on Qadree Ollison. Running back is Pitt’s deepest position and I’d try to showcase that talent and give the Penn State defense different looks. Ollison and Darrin Hall have similar running style which is why using Chawntez Moss and AJ Davis more could be a good game plan. If the plan is to dominate time of possession, I’d want to have fresh legs in the backfield. Moss and Davis are capable of ripping off a run of 15-20 yards more so than Hall of Ollison. Pitt needs to have some element of surprise if they want to do the unthinkable.

2016 Rushing Attempts vs. Penn State:

  • Conner: 22 carries for 117 yards, 1 TD
  • Henderson: 4 carries for 58 yards
  • Peterman: 8 carries for 52 yards
  • Ollison: 9 carries for 36 yards
  • Hall: 4 carries for 33 yards
  • Whitehead: 1 carry for 28 yards
  • Aston: 4 carries for 14 yards, 2 TDs
  • Ford: 1 carry for 6 yards

AJ Davis September 2, 2017 — DAVID HAGUE


For the last year, the Penn State defensive coaches have been thinking about Quadree Henderson and that jet sweep play. After not using it in the Villanova game, Matt Canada pulled that play out for Penn State and it was their most effective play and a big reason why Pitt won last year. Because of that, I would be shocked if Pitt was as effective running it this year.

Henderson is Pitt’s most dynamic player on offense and will no doubt be the focus of the Nittany Lion’s defensive game plan.

Shawn Watson is well aware of all this and has to come up with a way to get Henderson the ball aside from the jet sweep. Last year, Henderson touched the ball on offense 7 times for 105 yards. Will this be the game we finally see Henderson’s receiving skills showcased?

Quadree Henderson celebrates TD versus Penn State on September 10, 2016. — DAVID HAGUE


Trying to beat Penn State through the air would be a mistake however that doesn’t mean the passing plays should be conservative. Although we didn’t get to see it on Saturday, Max Browne has a good, strong-arm. I’d like to see Pitt use the height advantage they have with players like Jester Weah, Aaron Mathews, Ruben Flowers, Chris Clark and test the Penn State secondary down the field. I’m not saying do this 20 times a game but Pitt can’t allow Penn State to crowd the line of scrimmage and sit on the underneath passes. Seeing Browne throw downfield is probably something Franklin hasn’t seen while looking back at this high school and USC scrimmage tapes.

Max Browne during pregame September 2, 2017 — DAVID HAGUE


There’s no doubt that Trace McSorley is a big-time college quarterback and one of the best in college football. Pitt was fortunate that when facing him last year, it was only McSorley’s second college start. Despite that, he was able to throw for 332 yards and turned things on as the game went on. However, he only threw for one touchdown, threw a costly interception, was sacked four times and was pressured all game.

If Pitt’s defensive line and linebackers can’t find a way to get to McSorley and rush his throws, it will be a long day for the defense. I would fully anticipate that Josh Conklin will throw many different blitzes and looks at McSorley in an attempt to confuse him.

Will we finally see a Pat Narduzzi style defense that gets to the quarterback and forces a few key turnovers?

Trace McSorley fumbles on Ejuan Price hit September 10, 2016. — DAVID HAGUE


If history is any sort of indicator, the Pitt Panthers should make it a ball game. In Pat Narduzzi’s first two years as head coach, only once (Miami, Fla.) have the Panthers been out of a regular season game heading into the fourth quarter. That tells me that he’ll have this team prepared and will have a game plan that will give them a chance to win.  No doubt, this will be Narduzzi’s biggest challenge as Panthers head coach. Can they keep things close going to the 4th quarterback on Saturday?


  • at Iowa 27-24
  • North Carolina 26-19
  • Notre Dame 42-30
  • Miami 29-24
  • at Oklahoma State 45-38
  • at North Carolina 37-36
  • Virginia Tech 39-36
  • at Miami 51-28



Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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