Everyone is giving their predictions for Saturday’s game in Happy Valley. I’ve seen scores ranging from blowouts with Penn State putting up 55 points, to low scoring grind-it-out games.
The one thing I haven’t seen much of? Predictions of a Pitt upset.
This is completely understandable as seemingly almost everything is stacked against the Panthers in this matchup. Trying to win at Beaver stadium is a monumental task in itself. Trying to win at Beaver Stadium while Penn State fields one of the most explosive offenses in the country, a veteran defense and a punter who can control field position is a whole different monster.
However, all hope is not lost for Pitt. The idea that people are completely writing this team off before opening kickoff may be warranted, but some of the reasoning is skewed. To garner judgment based on Pitt’s performance against Youngstown State is somewhat shortsighted. Yes, it took overtime to beat an FCS opponent, and yes there was a huge letdown in the second half–especially on the defensive side of the ball–but Pat Narduzzi has always maintained that the biggest jump his team will make is from week 1 to week 2.
Last year against Villanova, another FCS school, Pitt gained 261 yards of total offense while scoring three offensive touchdowns. This year Pitt gained 348 yards of total offense and scored four offensive touchdowns. In no way am I saying this alone should be reason to feel optimistic about the season, but when you compare the two games and look at the second week performance last year, it may prevent you from hitting the panic button just yet.
Pitt was extremely bland on both offense and defense in week 1. The defensive line rotated groups almost every drive, which is something I highly doubt we will see again this year. The topic of the game plan, or lack thereof has been beaten to death over the last few days. So what will need to happen for Pitt to go into Beaver stadium and pull off the upset?
First, Pat Narduzzi will need to out coach James Franklin. This is a huge opportunity for Narduzzi to manage a game and put his players in positions to make plays. Narduzzi has always stuck with his defensive philosophy of stopping the run, pressuring the quarterback, and trusting his DBs to play 1-on-1 and make plays. Last year, Narduzzi did not have the talent in the secondary to have success on a consistent basis but he has recruited guys and coached his players up so they can play in his system.
Although they are young, the talent is there. Avonte Maddox and Dane Jackson both looked much improved as they both showed a previously absent ability to turn their heads and make plays on the ball. Bricen Garner was, in my opinion, the biggest surprise in the secondary during week one. He showed attention to detail, a superb knowledge of his assignments and the ability to make big plays. Garner had two pass break ups and the game wining interception in his Pitt debut.
Pitt will need to find an answer at the other safety position while Jordan Whitehead is still suspended. That was the biggest missing piece on Saturday and it will need to be fixed for Pitt to slow down Penn State’s high-powered offense.
The defensive line will have to come up big and cause problems in the backfield. Last week three defensive linemen made their college debuts (Keyshon Camp, Rashad Weaver and Rashad Wheeler), while Dewayne Hendrix played his first full game in more than two years, and Shane Roy made his first ever start. It’s difficult to judge their play while taking into account this was the first start for almost every player on the line. This is where Pitt will have to make its biggest jump. Penn State has too much talent on the offensive side of the ball and if Saquon Barkley is given any daylight, he will have a big performance. Limiting Barkley is a lot to ask for but if Pitt wants to win this game it is something that must be done.
Offensively, Max Browne has to step up and take control. The play calling will be improved from week 1, and Browne must respond by raising his game in kind. Browne has the ability to make any throw he wants to, but he needs to find the confidence to pull the trigger and throw the ball downfield. At times on Saturday it looked as if he was afraid to make a mistake, which caused him to prematurely check down to his second or third option far too often. If Browne is able to settle in the pocket and is given time from his offensive line, he needs to forget about making mistakes and trust his arm talent. If he is able to do this, the rest of what Pitt wants to do offensively will open up.
I’m not naïve. I understand how difficult it is to go to Penn State and try and upset the #4 team in the country–a team that is looking to avenge the difficult loss they took last year at Pitt. This is a monumental task, but as pointed out by College GameDay contributor Chris Fallica, in the last 10 years, Pitt has been a two touchdown underdog five times. In these games, Pitt has covered all five times and won three of them outright. Two of the wins came as 20-point underdogs and the two loses came by a total of seven points.
A little food for thought for those who think Pitt doesn’t stand a chance. See you Saturday.