THE MATCHUP: PITT (1-0) VS #13 PENN STATE (1-0)
WHEN: 8:00 P.M. EST
WHERE: HEINZ FIELD, PITTSBURGH, PA
HOW TO WATCH: ABC
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK
After handling FCS opponent Albany 33-7 on opening weekend, it is time for Pitt to jump right into their daunting schedule when the 13th-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions travel to Heinz Field Saturday night.
The Nittany Lions, considered to be a legitimate contender for a Big Ten title and an FBS playoff berth, squeaked by Appalachian State in last week’s season opener, 45-38. It may have taken overtime to dispatch of their FCS opponents, and PSU may have dropped out of the AP top-10 for not winning in a more decisive manner, but their season-long goals remain intact as they make their last trip to Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future.
Penn State’s offense, which propelled the team to 41.1 points-per-game in 2017 (tied for 6th in the FBS), suffered multiple significant losses in the offseason. Offensive Coordinator Joe Moorhead, the mastermind behind PSU’s offensive turnaround two years ago, left for the head coaching position at Mississippi State. Replacing Moorhead is Ricky Rahne, the Nittany Lions’ passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach since 2014. While Rahne may add a few new wrinkles to the offense, he will continue to implement Moorhead’s up-tempo, spread system to prevent regression during the coaching transition.
From a player perspective, All-American running back Saquon Barkley, star tight end Mike Gesicki and leading receiver DaeSean Hamilton all now play in the NFL, leaving PSU without three of its primary playmakers from the team that defeated Pitt 33-14 a year ago. But despite the losses, Penn State still features an offense capable of moving the ball and racking up points, thanks in part to the return of starting quarterback Trace McSorley.
Named to practically every preseason watch list on which a quarterback may appear, including the Heisman trophy, McSorley is poised for a big senior season. The undersized, dual-threat passer has completed at least one touchdown pass in 29-straight games, the longest active streak in the FBS, and barring injury or an unexpected slump, he should own practically every major PSU passing record by season’s end. Against Appalachian State, McSorley completed 21-of-36 pass for 230 yards and 1 touchdown, while accounting for 61 yards and 2 touchdowns on 12 carries. His clutch 15-yard touchdown completion to K.J. Hamler with 42 seconds remaining in regulation forced the game into overtime, preventing an opening weekend nightmare in Happy Valley.
McSorley may have lost his top target in 2017, receiver DaeSean Hamilton, but he has plenty of talented receiving targets from which to choose. Junior Juwan Johnson, who finished second on the team in 2017 with 701 receiving yards, returns as PSU’s top receiver. At 6-feet-4-inches tall and 231 pounds, his size alone presents problems for opposing corners. Complimenting Johnson’s size is senior DeAndre Thompkins, arguably Penn State’s fastest player with reported 4.34 speed in the 40-yard dash. K.J. Hamler, an explosive 5-foot-9-inch redshirt freshman out of Florida’s IMG Academy, led the Nittany Lions in receiving against Appalachian State with 4 receptions for 68 yards and a touchdown. And five-star true freshman Justin Shorter, standing at 6-feet-4-inches tall and 226 pounds, combines size with athleticism at receiver. According to Coach Franklin, Shorter was “a little dinged up and missed some time” in fall camp, but is still expected to “see significant action early in the season.” At this time, Shorter does not appear on Penn State’s depth chart and his status for Saturday remains unclear.
At running back, the duo of Miles Sanders and Ricky Slade proved in week one that Penn State will survive without Saquon Barkley. Sanders, the former 4-star recruit out of Pittsburgh’s Woodland Hills High School, served as the team’s primary ball carrier with 19 attempts for 91 yards and 2 touchdowns. Like Barkley, Sanders can also catch the ball out of the backfield, contributing 3 receptions for 20 yards. Slade, the 2nd-ranked all-purpose back in the Class of 2017, is a big-play threat with the ball in his hands. Against Appalachian State, he displayed an impressive combination of speed and balance, ripping off a 27-yard touchdown in his collegiate debut.
On the offensive line, the Nittany Lions return four starters, including left tackle Ryan Bates, a 2017 third-team All-Big Ten selection.
Like the offense, Penn State’s defense experienced significant turnover in the offseason. Eight starters and multiple key contributors either graduated or left the team. James Franklin’s revered recruiting classes keep the overall talent level on the field high, although some of that talent is young and relatively untested.
The only returning starter along the defensive line, redshirt junior defensive end Shareef Miller, earned Third-Team All-Big Ten honors in 2017. Starting at the other defensive end position is sophomore Yetur Gross-Matos, a former four-star recruit who appeared in all thirteen games last year. And in the middle, Robert Windsor and one-time Pitt commit Kevin Givens are listed as the starters at defensive tackle.
As in previous years, Penn State rotates its defensive linemen frequently in order to reduce in-game fatigue. Expect to see four-star recruits like Fred Hansard (redshirt freshman defensive tackle) and P.J. Mustipher (freshman defensive tackle) earning playing time as the game draws on.
Koa Farmer is the only returning starter among the linebackers, with junior Jan Johnson replacing 2017 second-team All-Big Ten performer Jason Cabinda in the middle, and Cam Brown replacing Manny Bowen. However, according to Coach Franklin leading into the season, “All those linebacker positions are going to be a battle all year long.” The starters are expected to be pushed for playing time by lauded youngsters like the Class-of-2017’s prized recruit, Micah Parsons. Parsons – a top-10 national recruit on Rivals, ESPN and 247Sports – delivered 4 tackles in his debut. Wearing #11 like former Nittany Lion great LaVar Arrington, the expectations are high for last year’s American Family Insurance Defensive Player of the Year award, an honor presented to the top senior defensive player in high school by the Army All-American Bowl committee.
At cornerback, PSU returns redshirt senior Amani Oruwariye and redshirt junior John Reid, a pair of experienced and established players that did not start in 2017. Oruwariye, a second-team All-Big Ten honoree last season, appeared in all 11 games without receiving a start, registering 4 interceptions, 8 breakups and 12 passes defended. His interception last week sealed Penn State’s victory in overtime. Meanwhile, John Reid, an honorable mention All-Big Ten honoree in 2016, was forced to redshirt last year due to injury.
Rounding out the defense are first-year starting safeties Nick Scott and Garrett Taylor. The pair was highly active against Appalachian State, with Scott finishing with 9 tackles and Taylor finishing with 8. Taylor beat out Lamont Wade of Clairton High School heading into the season, although Wade is expected to see time in the secondary on Saturday.
Special Teams, specifically the punt game, are a strength for the Nittany Lions; Punter Blake Gillikin and returnman DeAndre Thompkins both earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2017.
|Points Per Game||33.0||7.0||45.0||38.0|
|Yards Gained Rushing||245||95||219||177|
|Yards Lost Rushing||7||35||15||18|
|Average Yards Per Rush||6.4||2.1||4.7||4.3|
|Average Yards Per Game||238.0||60.0||204.0||159.0|
|Average Yards Per Game||169.0||263.0||230.0||292.0|
|Average Yards Per Play||6.8||5.7||5.5||5.9|
|Average Yards Per Game||407.0||323.0||434.0||451.0|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||2-98||1-21||1-52||3-130|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||2-2||0-0||1-29||1-11|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||2-79||1-0||1-0||0-0|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||49.0||21.0||52.0||43.3|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||1.0||0.0||29.0||11.0|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||39.5||0.0||0.0||0.0|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||1-1||0-0||0-0||1-0|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||6-55||7-40||2-10||9-100|
|Average Per Game||55.0||40.0||10.0||100.0|
|PUNTS – YARDS||2-93||5-181||5-215||6-261|
|Net Yards Per Punt||46.5||35.8||40.8||38.7|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||29:34||30:26||27:32||32:28|
|4th Down Percentage||0.0%||0.0%||50%||100%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||5-33||0-0||2-14||1-8|
HOW/WHERE TO WATCH
The 99th meeting between Pitt and Penn State kicks off at 8:00pm Saturday at Heinz Field. When these two teams met at Heinz Field in 2016, they drew the largest crowd in Pittsburgh sporting event history. For those who cannot make it to the game, it will be aired on ABC and can be heard on 93.7 the Fan. And as always, Pittsburgh Sports Now and its staff will provide in-game updates and observations via Twitter.