We’re four days away from the 100th football edition of Pitt vs. Penn State. The matchup on Saturday at Beaver Stadium is the last scheduled game for these programs so it’s very likely that this will be the last game between these two schools for a very long time.
Pitt (1-1) enters the matchup coming off their first win of 2019 while James Franklin’s team is looking to remain undefeated and run their record to 3-0.
This will be Penn State’s first real competition of the season after opening with Idaho and Buffalo, while the Panthers have been tested by playing Virginia and Ohio U.
For an in-depth look at this matchup and to get a better perspective on Penn State, Pittsburgh Sports Now spoke with Cory Giger from the Altoona Mirror, covered Penn State for the last 14 years. Giger is one of the most opinionated and respected men on the Penn State beat.
PSN: James Franklin just held his press conference, have you noticed any difference in him when it comes to this matchup from when it started four years ago?
Cory Giger: “James Franklin is a very smart guy and what he tries to do is keep everyone on point each and every single game. It might sound silly when he talks about every game is the Super Bowl for his team. There’s no doubt some games are bigger than others.
“But whether you believe him or not, here’s the key, he believes it. I don’t think he’s spewing a bunch of nonsense, I think that his philosophy is to make sure that the 18, 19, 20, 21 year old kids in his program take every single game with the same level of importance. So, while Buffalo and Idaho are not as important as Pitt or Ohio State or Michigan, what this guy is trying to do is to keep them on the same level to be prepared each and every week.
“Quite frankly, he gets made fun of a lot for some of the things he says, but that’s really in essence what you want athletes to do and that’s no matter who you’re playing in any sport, you want to be as fully focused and prepared for that opponent as you would for anyone else. I know it’s strange some of the things Franklin says are strange and he refuses to say big game while Pat Narduzzi goes on and on about how this is a big game. It’s obviously a big game and whether it’s just an act from James Franklin or not, I’m reminded of a Seinfeld episode where Jerry is going to try and beat a lie detector test and George tells him Jerry it’s not a lie if you believe it.”
PSN: After Saturday, do you believe this series is gone for a long, long time?
CG: “ I do think this series is going to be in hiatus for awhile. I don’t know where a neutral site game could possibly be played. It’s not like they’re many 70- 80- 90,000-seat stadiums that would be available for these games.
“Look, I do think we’d all like to see this game played but the reality is Penn State plays nine conference games and Pitt plays eight. People don’t like to get involved in the finances and logistics of how everything goes about but Penn State is going to play two cupcakes games and then play one quality opponent in the non-conference. Whether people want to hear that or not, that’s what they’re going to do. They’re going to play two cupcakes and ate going to get 100,000 people in their stadium for Buffalo and they’re going to get 100,000 for Idaho, which might be the worst team they’ve ever played. So when you can get 100,000 people for Buffalo and Idaho, what’s your incentive to go out and challenge yourself anymore against a tougher opponent?
“Because in college sports, it’s about the money and it’s also about preparing yourself for the conference season. They are not going to have that quality opponent year in and year out be Pitt. That’s not ever going to happen at least while they’re playing nine conference games. They want to rotate one other team in there, they’ve got West Virginia, Auburn and Virginia Tech coming up over the next couple of years, so I think they’re at least on a break until 2030 unless there’s some seismic change in college football where they end up in the same conference we’re not ever going to see Pitt/Penn State playing every single year ever again.”
PSN: Looking at this year’s game, what on Pitt’s team concerns Franklin and Penn State?
CG: “From the Penn State perspective, what Buffalo was able to do in the first half by really running the ball well, throwing the ball well when they needed to and they were up in that game 10-7 at the half. I think Pitt can certainly do those things that Buffalo was doing. If Kenny Pickett comes out and is accurate and has time to throw, then he’ll have a chance to do some really good things. Pitt’s running game has given Penn State problems in recent years and if they can run the ball and have some balance then this can certainly be a very, very good game that’s a toss up deep into the game. Now, if Pitt struggles throwing the ball or struggles running the ball and becomes one dimensional, then that’s going to feed right into Penn State’s strengths because they do have a really good defense.”
PSN: Is the defensive line Penn State’s biggest strength?
CG: “Yes, the defensive line has a chance to be really, really good. They had some issues against Buffalo which came out with a good scheme and was able to run the ball some and gave their quarterback some time to throw in the first half. I think that was a good learning experience for Penn State’s defensive line and overall defense. But as the season goes on, Penn State has some outstanding players on the line and behind those guys on defense. There’s a chance for this defense to be really, really special which is why playing them early in the season like this could be big for Pitt if they can have a balanced offense. I like Pitt’s chances in this game a lot more than say if they were meeting in Week 8 or 9 or beyond once Penn State’s defense starts to get things figured out.”
PSN: Is the youth on Penn State’s offense any sort of concern or are Sean Clifford and Ricky Slade already look seasoned and ready?
CG: “So far, Sean Clifford has been really good. He has come out and done everything you’d want him to do in this offense. Is he Trace McSorley yet? No, not by a long shot but Sean Clifford has a chance to be really special and he is mature, he’s a good leader and he does have the big arm that can beat a defense in a number of ways very quickly.
“As for the rest of the offense, there’s still a lot of concerns with the offensive line and the running game has not gotten going yet. They’re rotating a lot of guys in the backfield and so their run game could be a big concern. With regards to Pitt, if they come in and stuff Penn State’s run game — which is at least a good possibility — and they force Sean Clifford to have to do everything with his arm, then yeah, you put yourself in a really good position if you’re the Panthers because while Clifford has looked good so far though two weeks, has not been in position where he’s had to win games by himself just yet.”
PSN: Point spread is 17.5 points, do you expect the game to be closer?
CG: “The point spread looks a little big to me simply because I don’t have a great deal of faith in Penn State’s running game yet and I do believe Pitt will be able to move the ball with a veteran quarterback like Pickett. But, the one concern is have is if I was going to take Pitt and the points is that Penn State has shown it can be a very, very good and explosive team in the second half of games.
“Not only that, if they’re up on you by 10 or 13 points, they’re going to try and keep scoring. If you bet against Penn State your bet might look good for 56 minutes and then they’re going to keep trying to score. I’m not saying they’re running up the score, but they’re going to keep their foot on the gas. They threw a touchdown pass with 3 minutes to go to cover the Buffalo spread. They’re up 38-13 with 3 minutes to go and they’re throwing a 56-yard touchdown pass that ends up covering the spread which was 31 and they won by 32.
“My initial reaction would be to take Pitt and the points but it could get dicey in the fourth quarter if Penn State has the lead.”