THE MATCHUP: PITT (1-0) AT #4 PENN STATE (1-0)
WHEN: 3:30 P.M. EST
WHERE: BEAVER STADIUM, STATE COLLEGE, PA
HOW TO WATCH: ABC (WTAE, LOCALLY)
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK
On Saturday, Pitt travels to Happy Valley for the first time in eighteen years to challenge in-state rivals Penn State. And while both teams are approaching the game with differing mindsets (at least from a media perspective), the end goal will be the same for Panthers and Nittany Lions alike.
Penn State cruised past the Akron Zips last week, 52-0, suggesting that their success in 2016 was no fluke. Now ranked fourth in the nation and boasting one of the top offensive units around, head coach James Franklin and his team may present the toughest team Pitt will face in 2017.
The Nittany Lions’ offense exploded last season under offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s up-tempo, spread offense. After just one season of calling plays in Happy Valley, Moorhead has already merited the attention of Power-5 schools looking to fill head coaching vacancies, and his offense continued to flourish in PSU’s game one victory; against Akron, Penn State’s offense accumulated 569 total yards and 6 touchdowns.
Moorhead’s attack revolves around early Heisman Trophy candidate, running back Saquon Barkley. At this point, the AP preseason first-team All-American’s talents are well documented, and he should be a stranger to no fan of college football. One glimpse at Barkley’s highlight reel shows a player capable of juking defenders, outrunning defenses, running over players and hurdling those who go low. At 228 pounds, Barkley is bigger than last year, and after running a reported 4.33 40-yard dash in the offseason, he is faster, too. In week one, the junior rushed for 172 yards and 2 touchdowns on 14 carries. He also served as a weapon in the passing game, adding 3 receptions for 54 receiving yards to his total yardage. Pitt allowed 129 yards and 2 touchdowns to Youngstown State tailbacks through the air last weekend, making Barkley’s ability in the passing game even more noteworthy.
If Barkley is Penn State’s most well-known player on offense, quarterback Trace McSorley isn’t far behind. The 2016 second-team All-Big Ten selection appears on practically every award watch list for which a quarterback applies. McSorley is athletic enough to extend plays with his legs and run when directed (48 yards rushing and a touchdown against Akron), and he proved durable in 2016 despite his 6-foot, 195-pound frame. In Coach Moorhead’s offense, McSorley is often called upon to deliver the ball downfield. As a result, he led the NCAA in passing yards-per-completion in 2016 with 16.13.
Do not be surprise to see revered sophomore quarterback Tommy Stevens on Saturday, too. Against Akron, Stevens saw second-half playing time once the Nittany Lions achieved an insurmountable lead, but Penn State also ran plays with McSorley and Stevens on the field simultaneously. Stevens is large, standing at 6-feet-5-inches and 228-pounds, and athletic enough to threaten defenses as a runner.
At wide receiver, Penn State must replace McSorley’s top target in 2016, 50-50 ball specialist Chris Godwin. At 6-foot-4-inches and 226-pounds, sophomore Juwan Johnson is poised to assume Godwin’s role. Johnson performed exceptionally well this offseason, and Nittany Lions’ wide receivers coach Josh Gattis would not be surprised if Johnson “dominated” this year.
Senior receiver DaeSean Hamilton is back, having already entered Penn State’s top-ten all-time for career receptions and receiving yardage. Hamilton had a mixed game against Pitt last season; while he registered eight receptions for 82 yards, he also dropped an open downfield pass with under three minutes remaining, missing a chance to hand Penn State the lead. Saeed Blacknall and speedster DeAndre Thompkins also return to round out a deep and dangerous group.
In addition to Barkley and the corps of wide receivers, McSorley will also have senior tight end Mike Gesicki as a target. Gesicki was named a 2017 preseason All-American by numerous media venues after breaking the single season records for receptions and yardage by a tight end at Penn State last season. The 6-foot-6-inch, 250-pounder has ideal size, the speed to beat defenses downfield, and as evidenced by his impressive highlight reel, the leaping ability to highpoint the ball. He began this season strong, registering 6 receptions for 58 yards and 2 touchdowns, with a long-reception of 35 yards. The Panthers conceded 6 receptions for 100 yards to YSU tight end Kevin Rader in week one, making Gesicki another potential mismatch for Pitt.
PSU’s offensive line returns four starters, although there has been some slight shuffling as to where players line up. Sophomore Ryan Bates starts at left tackle after earning USA Today Freshman All-American honors in 2016, and right guard Brendan Mahon is another guy to watch. Against Akron, the line paved the way for 247 yards rushing and provided exemplary pass protection, allowing for 322 yards passing with 0 sacks. On Tuesday, Coach Franklin honored the line’s opening weekend performance by naming them Offensive Players of the Week.
Defensively, Penn State values depth along the line, rotating as many as ten players throughout the course of a game to limit fatigue. At defensive end, PSU lost a pair of third-team All-Big Ten honorees in Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan, but return contributors Torrence Brown and Shareef Miller. Miller, a 6-foot-5-inch, 257-pound sophomore, is a player whom Coach Franklin believes is poised for a breakout season. Miller missed most of the opener after sustaining a leg injury, but is expected to return against Pitt. In Miller’s absence, 6-foot-6-inch, 273-pound Ryan Buchholz performed admirably, registering 4 total tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, 1 sack and 1 forced fumble.
On the interior of the defensive line, the Nittany Lions return both of their starters from last season: Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren. The two seniors are accompanied by sophomore Kevin Givens, a onetime Pitt commit, and senior Tyrell Chavis. Chavis excelled in week one with 5 total tackles, 3 tackles-for-loss and 0.5 sacks.
PSU’s linebackers are led by senior middle linebacker Jason Cabinda. Cabinda earned third-team All-Big Ten honors in 2016 despite missing five games due to a hand injury, and has cut weight to 234-pounds to improve his on-field speed. Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman-White graduated, but Manny Bowen returns after starting 12 games in 2016. Bowen’s 5 total tackles against Akron placed him in a three-way tie for the team lead.
In the secondary, senior free safety Marcus Allen is the player to watch after earning third-team All-Big Ten honors in 2016. Allen, godson of former Pitt running back Curtis Martin, led the Nittany Lions in total tackles last season with 110. Joining Allen is strong safety Troy Apke, a senior from Mount Lebanon who is in his first season as full-time starter. Like Allen, Apke also has ties to the University of Pittsburgh with his father having played linebacker for the Panthers.
Seniors Christian Campbell and Grant Haley start at cornerback after John Reid sustained a season-ending knee injury in the spring. Amani Oruwariye provides depth, and showed with a first quarter interception against Akron that he can create turnovers. Also contributing at the position is Lamont Wade, a player Pitt fans will likely notice every time he steps onto the field. Wade, a 5-star recruit from Clairton High School, committed to PSU in the Class-of-2017, breaking the pipeline of FBS-caliber Clairton recruits attending Pitt. Wade recorded 1 tackle in his debut last Saturday.
Special teams always have the potential to provide game-determining moments, and that is especially true in this weekend’s matchup. Penn State returns senior kicker Tyler Davis, a fairly reliable kicker who is susceptible to an occasional miss; Davis converted 22-of-24 field goals in 2016, and 1-of-2 of attempts against Akron. On the other hand, the Panthers’ Alex Kessman is looking for his first career field goal after going 0-for-2 in his debut against Youngstown State.
Both teams also feature return men capable of taking the ball to the house on returns. Pitt’s 2016 All-American return specialist Quadree Henderson is the most accomplished of the returners, but the always-dangerous Saquon Barkley returned Penn State’s lone kick return in the opener, and DeAndre Thompkins averaged 31.8 yards on punt returns with a touchdown.
This week’s statistical comparison:
|Points Per Game||28.0||21.0||52.0||0.0|
|Yards Gained Rushing||241||122||266||107|
|Yards Lost Rushing||33||15||19||34|
|Average Yards Per Rush||3.9||4.1||7.3||2.1|
|Average Yards Per Game||208.0||107.0||247.0||73.0|
|Average Yards Per Game||140.0||311.0||322.0||86.0|
|Average Yards Per Play||4.5||7.2||8.8||2.5|
|Average Yards Per Game||348.0||418.0||569.0||159.0|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||3-71||2-33||1-20||4-77|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||1-66||0-0||5-130||0-0|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||1-0||0-0||1-0||1-0|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||23.7||16.5||20.0||19.2|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||66.0||0.0||26.0||0.0|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||0.0||0.0||0.0||0.0|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||1-1||0-0||0-0||1-0|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||0-0||5-45||5-45||9-84|
|Average Per Game||0.0||45.0||45.0||84.0|
|PUNTS – YARDS||2-81||4-126||2-100||11-435|
|Net Yards Per Punt||40.50||15.0||40.0||27.7|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||34:31||25:29||29:30||30:30|
|4th Down Percentage||100%||100%||50%||0%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||1-11||3-30||3-13||0-0|
On the injury front, Penn State will be without cornerback John Reid, and Shareef Miller is probable to return. Running back Mark Allen and tight end Nick Bowers appear on the depth chart after not dressing in game one.
For the Panthers, George Aston and Tre Tipton are all out due to injury. Jordan Whitehead is serving the second game of his suspension, while Quinton Wirginis is out due to both injury and suspension. Damar Hamlin and Phillipie Motley also do not appear on the depth chart after missing week one.
The 98th meeting between Pitt and Penn State begins at 3:30p.m Saturday at Beaver Stadium. The game will be aired on ABC (WTAE, locally) 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.
42-39 has been a score on Pitt fans’ minds for a year now. As the game many consider to be the loss which cost Penn State a berth in the FBS Playoffs, it has been a score on Penn State fans’ minds as well. But on Saturday, 42-39 will become history, and a new score will emerge, as one team earns this season’s bragging rights.