THE MATCHUP: PITT (1-1) VS #9 OKLAHOMA STATE (2-0)
WHEN: 12:00 P.M. EST
WHERE: HEINZ FIELD, PITTBURGH, PA
HOW TO WATCH: ESPN
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK
The Pitt Panthers have never fielded a losing record under head coach Pat Narduzzi. On Saturday, that statistic will be put to the test as 9th ranked Oklahoma State visits the 1-1 Panthers at Heinz Field.
Oklahoma State will take to the field under head coach Mike Gundy, a man known for sporting the best mullet among all active collegiate head coaches (note, no time was actually spent researching whether there are any other active head coaches rocking a mullet). The Cowboys have cruised past their first two opponents, Tulsa and South Alabama, by a total score of 103 to 31. With their eyes set on a Big 12 championship and a berth in the College Football Playoffs, Pitt will serve as Oklahoma State’s first FBS, Power-5 conference test of 2017.
Under Gundy, Oklahoma State’s offense implements the always dangerous, pass-oriented “air-raid” attack. Their base package starts three receivers, one running back and a fullback/tight end hybrid labeled a “Cowboy back.” Their 51.5 points-per-game rank 9th in the FBS, and their 572.5 total yards-per-game rank 10th.
Quarterbacking the Cowboys once again is Mason Rudolph, a 6-foot-5-inch, 230-pound senior with legitimate Heisman Trophy aspirations. Pitt fans may remember Rudolph from last season, when he set an Oklahoma State single-game record with 540 yards passing against the Panthers. Now the program’s all-time leader in passing yards, Rudolph has completed 45-of-62 passes for an astounding 638 yards, 6 touchdowns and no interceptions this season. He also knows how to perform in the clutch, overcoming 8 second-half deficits for victory in his career.
Of course, Rudolph wouldn’t achieve such gaudy numbers without having a couple capable receivers on hand. The unstoppable target in Oklahoma State’s victory over Pitt last season, receiver James Washington, is back. Washington, a 2016 first-team All-Big 12 honoree, caught 9 passes for 296 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Panthers a year ago, including a 91-yard touchdown catch on the Cowboys’ first play from scrimmage. Despite playing with a hernia this season, Washington continues to dominate opponents downfield, catching 8 passes for 243 yards and 3 touchdowns, with a long-reception of 77 yards. On Monday, Pat Narduzzi stated that he will not be leaving Washington “on an island all day like we did last year,” suggesting that the Panthers will adjust their approach when attempting to limit Washington’s production.
Joining Washington is Marcell Ateman, a 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound senior who redshirted in 2016 due to injury. Ateman is the Cowboys’ second-leading receiver through two games with 9 receptions for 126 yards and 2 touchdowns. Also, keep an eye on junior Jalen McCleskey, the Cowboys’ leader in receptions last season. McCleskey may not have the size of Rudolph’s other targets, but he is described as “one of the fastest players on the roster” by the Cowboys’ website. With only 5 receptions for 17 yards in 2017, he could be due for a spike in production.
The Cowboys don’t just pass the ball, though. As Coach Narduzzi stated on Monday, Coach Gundy “likes to run the ball as much as he likes to throw it.” At running back, Oklahoma State starts Justice Hill, a second-team All-Big 12 honoree in 2016 who Narduzzi believes may be “the fastest tailback [the Panthers] face all year.” Hill added 14 pounds in the offseason according to the team’s website, and the added muscle has helped him to avoid a sophomore-slump so far. Through two games, he has registered 159 yards-rushing and a touchdown on 26 carries, and another 56 yards on 7 receptions.
When Hill requires a break, he is spelled by a pair of freshmen runners, J.D. King and LD Brown. Both King and Brown registered runs of over 70 yards in the season opener, ensuring that the Cowboys’ run game remains a threat even without Hill on the field.
The offensive line returns three full-time Cowboy starters from 2016, and all five players have prior starting experience. The standout of the group is 6-foot-7-inch, 310-pound pound senior Zachary Crabtree, a 2016 second-team All-Big 12 honoree at right tackle. Right guard Larry Williams, who started five games before sustaining a season-ending injury, also returns for Oklahoma State. And adding to the already experienced group is graduate transfer Aaron Cochran, a left tackle who started 16 games for California in his time as a Golden Bear. At 6-feet-8-inches tall and 350-pounds, Cochran is a physically imposing individual who should be easy to spot on the field.
Oklahoma State’s offense is rarely shut down, and the Panthers will likely need to score multiple touchdowns on Saturday to keep pace. While the Cowboys’ defense has limited the team’s success in previous seasons, they have performed well thus far in 2017, albeit against non-Power-5 competition. Oklahoma State is allowing 303.5 yards-per-game (tied for 40th in the FBS) and 15.5 points-per-game (tied for 31st in the FBS), placing them in the top half of overall defenses. One area which may factor into the Panthers’ offensive success on Saturday is how quickly the Cowboys can get them off the field; Pitt ranks 6th nationally in time-of-possession, while quick-striking Oklahoma State ranks 101st. However, Pitt proved against Penn State that controlling the clock means little if a team cannot score touchdowns.
On the defensive line, a pair of 300-pounders start at defensive tackle in Darrion Daniels and DeQuinton Osborne. Osborne, tipping the scales at a stout 6-feet tall and 305-pounds, is off to a good start in 2017 with 7 total tackles, 3 tackles-for-loss, 1 sack and a fumble recovery. At end, Cole Walterscheid returns as a starter, and he is complimented by Jarrell Owens and Vili Levini. Walterscheid registered 4 tackles-for-loss and 2 forced fumbles against Pitt last year, arguably the best performance of his career.
The Cowboy linebackers are anchored by returning Mike linebacker, Chad Whitener. Whitener led Oklahoma State in tackles last season and currently sits second on the team with 9.
While Oklahoma State’s outside linebackers don’t produce as many tackles as Whitener, both have made splash plays already this season. Will linebacker Justin Phillips is the only Cowboy to register an interception, and Star linebacker Kenneth Edison-McGruder scored on an 82-yard fumble recovery against Tulsa. However, Edison-McGruder’s status for Saturday is questionable after he sat out against South Alabama with an undisclosed injury.
In the secondary, Oklahoma State starts a pair of young, inexperienced cornerbacks in A.J. Green and Rodarius Williams. To balance the inexperience at corner, the Cowboys feature two returning starters at safety, although neither player started at his current position before 2017. Trey Flowers, whose 11 total tackles lead the team, was a second-team All-Big 12 honoree last season at strong safety. Flowers made the switch to free safety this season, allowing for Ramon Richards, a 23-game starter at cornerback, to start at strong safety.
The last, but certainly not least, player of note is punter Zach Sinor. With Sinor punting, Oklahoma State is equipped to play for field-position when their offense doesn’t score; the 2016 second-team All-Big 12 honoree led the nation in punts downed within the 20-yard line (62.5%) last season. And after such a successful sophomore season, Sinor launched a highly-amusing Heisman Trophy campaign for himself. What started off as a Youtube video evolved into a full-fledged Sinor4Heisman website featuring a dancing baby graphic and sayings like, “Punters are people too!” Warning: Pitt fans who visit the Sinor4Heisman website may find it hard to root against the guy on Saturday.
|Points Per Game||21.0||27.0||51.5||15.5|
|Yards Gained Rushing||440||295||532||352|
|Yards Lost Rushing||77||40||37||67|
|Average Yards Per Rush||3.7||5.1||6.7||3.3|
|Average Yards Per Game||181.5||127.5||247.5||142.5|
|Average Yards Per Game||163.5||237.5||325.0||161.0|
|Average Yards Per Play||4.2||6.6||8.1||4.1|
|Average Yards Per Game||345.0||365.0||572.5||303.5|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||5-104||4-83||4-85||7-129|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||4-66||3-31||4-16||0-0|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||2-2||2-43||1-25||0-0|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||20.8||20.8||21.3||18.4|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||16.5||10.3||4.0||N/A|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||1.0||21.5||25.0||N/A|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||2-2||1-0||3-2||4-3|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||6-55||6-60||9-76||9-88|
|Average Per Game||27.5||30.0||38.0||44.0|
|PUNTS – YARDS||7-303||10-385||4-154||14-651|
|Net Yards Per Punt||38.9||31.9||38.5||43.9|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||36:26||23:34||26:42||33:18|
|4th Down Percentage||85.7%||100.0%||100.0%||66.7%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||2-18||8-67||5-36||3-10|
Oklahoma State has remained relatively healthy and suspension-free through two weeks, with the exception being at linebacker. On Saturday, linebacker Kenneth Edison-McGruder is questionable, linebackers Brendan Vaughn and Kevin Henry are out, and linebacker Calvin Bundage must sit for one half after receiving a targeting suspension.
For the Panthers, Tre Tipton is out for the season due to injury. Jordan Whitehead is serving the last game of his suspension, while Quinton Wirginis is out due to both injury and suspension. George Aston and Phillipie Motley are questionable, with Pat Narduzzi providing no clear indication of if/when the two will be ready for a full return. Also, Damar Hamlin and Therran Coleman appear on the depth chart for the first time this season, making their season debuts a possibility.
The second-ever meeting between Pitt and Oklahoma State begins at 12:00p.m Saturday at Heinz Field. It will be aired on ESPN 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.
The last time Pitt defeated a top-10 opponent at home was in 2003, when they defeated fifth-ranked Virginia Tech, 31-28. There was a 13-9 victory at second-ranked West Virginia a few seasons later, and everyone knows what happened at Clemson last year. And while Pitt may have missed an opportunity to register a top-5 upset last weekend, it is wise to never count the Panthers out when their backs are against the wall.