Penn State escaped a scare from the Buffalo Bulls in week two and now gets a chance to square off with Pitt for the last time in the foreseeable future.
A slow start last week almost doomed Penn State, but a huge second half propelled the Nittany Lions to victory. Getting off to a slow start against a Pitt team that would love nothing more than to pull off an upset at Beaver Stadium could spell disaster this week.
The following payers will each be key in helping the Nittany Lions avoid such an upset and ensuring that Penn State leaves the rivalry with a winning streak in-tact.
DE Yetur Gross-Matos
Entering the 2019 season with a ton of hype, Yetur Gross-Matos hasn't disappointed through two games. He was dominant on the line in Week One against Idaho, finishing with 3 total tackles and 2.5 sacks. Last week against Buffalo, the defensive end was mostly held in check on the stat sheet (3 tackles, 1 sack) but still provided heavy doses of quarterback pressure, especially as the defensive improved later on in the game.
Three-and-a-half sacks and six total tackles through two games isn't a bad way to start the season, especially for someone who is still growing as a football player. Gross-Matos is a perfect example of a disruptor. He's big, athletic, and gets off the line quickly and into the opponent's backfield.
The defense as a whole struggled somewhat against Buffalo, and things need to be better this week. It all starts on the line with the "Wild Dogs" and Gross-Matos is arguably the best of the bunch. If he can force the issue and get in quarterback Kenny Pickett's face early and often, it could be a long day for the junior quarterback.
QB Sean Clifford
When starting a career as the starting quarterback at a big-time college football program, it's hard to ask for much more than what Sean Clifford has provided. Aside from some obvious jitters on the first few drives in Week One against Idaho, Clifford has looked poised and very much in control of the Penn State offense.
Efficiency has been the name of Clifford's game so far, completing nearly 67 percent of his passes, including a 73 percent performance in Week 2 against Buffalo. He's thrown for 559 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions.
Not only does Clifford make plays with his arms, but he is also tied for the team's rushing lead with 108 yards.
Clifford has quickly formed a strong relationship with his receivers, particularly KJ Hamler, Pat Freiermuth, and Jahan Dotson. Expect to once again see some big plays from the Penn State passing attack on Saturday.
The next step for the young quarterback, though, is to improve his RPO reads and consistently make the correct decision based on what the defense is giving him (as he did on the first Freiermuth touchdown against Buffalo). If he can continue to progress in that area, Penn State's offense will be too much for Pitt to handle.
CB John Reid
The 2019 season has become the stage upon which the resurgence of cornerback John Reid has taken shape. He's had a chance to live up to the potential he showed during his first two seasons with the Nittany Lions, and he's made good on that chance. The senior already has two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown that completely changed the momentum of last week's game with Buffalo.
He's on a pace to post the best numbers of his career in total tackles and interceptions. He's clearly one of the leaders of the Penn State defense and will be needed this week.
Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett is coming off a career-high 321 yards passing against Ohio last week. That, paired with the fact that Buffalo threw for 245 yards last week against Penn State, means that Pitt will likely want to use the passing attack on Saturday.
Reid and his fellow defensive backs need to be ready to stop the Pittsburgh passing game.
What do you think? Sound off in the comments with your x-factors for this week's contest.