Penn State vs. Pitt: 3 Keys to Victory for the Nittany Lions

By Nick Polak on September 8, 2018 at 2:22 pm
Sep 1, 2018; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers running back Qadree Ollison (30) rushes the ball against the Albany Great Danes during the first quarter at Heinz Field.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Did you know that Penn State is playing against Pitt on Saturday night in Heinz Field? The game is set to kick off at 8:00 p.m. ET, with the Nittany Lions looking to win their second straight contest with the Panthers. In order to do so, they'll have to make sure they place an emphasis on the following keys.

1. Run. The. Football.

This is a big game for Miles Sanders for many reasons. It won't be the first time the Pittsburgh-native is going up against his hometown team, but it is his first as the Nittany Lions starter, and his first chance to prove his ability and show off his talent on a national stage. With the 8:00 kick time and rivalry vibes in the air, many more eyes will be focused on No. 24 and the offense than last week. How he fares against the Narduzzi defense will play a major role in deciding the outcome of this game.

It's no secret that the Pitt defense is built on creating chaos. The secondary isn't good enough to consistently stop teams through the air, but they are more than capable of creating turnovers in obvious passing situations. Sanders's (and Slade's and Allen's) ability to move the ball on the ground and avoid third-and-long spots will be key in making sure that they don't play into the Panthers' hands.

Sanders was electric in the opener against App State, compiling 111 total yards and two touchdowns, and perhaps most importantly, was only stopped behind the line of scrimmage twice. The downhill style of the junior back should serve him and the offense well in what looks to be a messy, rainy night in Pittsburgh.

2. Contain Pickett on the ground

Don't get it twisted- Kenny Pickett has been very impressive since taking over as the started towards the end of last season. He led a great win over an overrated, but still very good Miami team to cement his status as the starter for 2018, and has the potential to be a solid-to-great quarterback for Pat Narduzzi for multiple years.

The scariest part of playing against Pickett is his ability as a runner. He's a fine passer, though certainly has much more room to grow in that regard. And that's just fine, because the offense doesn't ask him to make huge plays with his arm, rather just to make the smart play. Often, the smart play ends up being taking off with the football- something that he did very well in that aforementioned Miami game (13 rushes for 60 yards and two touchdowns).

The key to the Pitt offense is the run game, highlighted by the powerful Qadree Ollison. But containing Pickett's ability to take off when the play breaks down will be the difference between extending drives or not. This will be a big test for a linebacker group that generally struggled against App State.

3. Don't lose focus

Arguably, the biggest issue for Penn State against the Mountaineers in week one is that the team assumed the game was over when the score hit 24-10, and then again when the board read 31-17. For a team as young as the Nittany Lions, it's an issue that is hardly surprising.

Not that there should be any issues in getting up for a rivalry game, but James Franklin has to make sure that his team doesn't take the foot off the pedal if they have a chance to bury their opponent, no matter what the clock says. This Pitt team isn't equipped to score quickly outside of Maurice Ffrench in the return game, but they definitely have the defensive play-making ability to quickly change the tide of a game.

Additionally, focusing on wrapping up on the defense side of things should be and will be a priority for Brent Pry's defense. We saw a team that really struggled to hang onto ball carriers in week one, and that won't fly in week two against Pickett, Ollison, and company. But if the team is able to flock to the ball with the great speed that they do have, then one of the most alarming issues from the home opener will quickly dissipate into the Pittsburgh night sky.

What do you think? What do the Nittany Lions have to do in order to defeat their in-state rivals?