The 100th edition of the Penn State-Pitt series kicks off on Saturday at noon in Beaver Stadium. For roughly the 100th time this week, we are supposed to tell you that this appears to be the final meeting between the two programs for the foreseeable future. The NIttany Lions have won the last two meetings by a combined score of 84-20, and will look to close out this four-game series with a third straight victory.
Before that happens, however, we've got a few questions to ponder.
We’ve talked a lot already this week about what went wrong for Penn State in the first 30 minutes against Buffalo last weekend. With a young team, is that a lesson that can be used starting this week as the level of competition starts to go up pretty consistently week to week?
Jarrod Prugar: All things considered, Penn State was never really in jeopardy of losing the game. They came out, rotated early and played/called a very vanilla game through all four quarters. Gotta give credit up front to Buffalo, they came to play and did everything they could to thwart the Nittany Lions. As a young team, they need to realize teams are gunning for them because they are in fact Penn State, a top team in the country, and no matter who the opponent is they will be out to get them. They learned they’ll have to be able to make adjustments on the fly rather than solely at the half even if those adjustments are pretty good.
Craig Fritz: Absolutely. First, they still rotated a ton early and played pretty vanilla schemes against the Bulls early. They needed to face adversity and put struggles on tape before those mistakes happen against better teams. As frustrating as it was for fans, in the long run, this young team needed to get punched in the mouth.
Dan Smith: An interesting challenge for Brent Pry is the tempo that Buffalo utilized. His defense has always rotated heavily, especially when it comes to altering personnel on passing downs. Quick tempo offense prevents Pry from being able to get players like Jan Johnson or Antonio Shelton off of the field, and we saw what happened when Johnson ended up in coverage because Penn State was not in nickel. Similarly, having a big 1-tech in to pass rush instead of kicking an end inside resulted in an ineffective pass rush. At the very least, this game should start a serious conversation about how to avoid that.
The running game has been inconsistent at best through two games, and really struggled against the Bulls. Is there something missing in the ground attack, or is this a bigger issue with personnel or scheme?
Jarrod: Ricky Slade has got to hold onto the football, and the offense needs the ball in order to be successful running the football. It’s too early to realize how big of an issue this could wind up being. With the rotation of guys they have, they should be able to run the ball well if the line can get things going early.
Craig: I don’t think there’s anything missing except ball security. Big plays negated the need for a consistent rushing attack against Buffalo, but it’s certainly something to keep an eye on. If Sean Clifford keeps hitting passes downfield, the running game is going to open up nicely.
Dan: Penn State just did not have the ball for much of the game against Buffalo. They did not run the ball much, but they did not do anything very much. And it seemed clear once things got going in the third quarter that the passing game was an effective way to take control. The offensive line remains a question mark, but I am not sounding any alarms yet.
Moving onto Pitt, they looked overmatched in week one against Virginia in just about every aspect of the game, and much better last week against Ohio. What do you make of Pat Narduzzi’s team so far?
Jarrod: Pitt is Pitt. They will be fired up for this game, and no matter what way you look at it, it’s still a rivalry game. Are they as talented as Penn State? No. Kenny Pickett did look better against Ohio, but he should look good against a MAC team. They lost a lot of key guys last year, and it will certainly be interesting to see how they adjust to playing in an environment such as Beaver Stadium Saturday afternoon.
Craig: Certainly Kenny Pickett had a career day against Ohio. I do not think he will enjoy the same success in Happy Valley. Narduzzi also does not have anywhere near the rushing attack he had the last two seasons. The Panthers only have 238 yards on the ground through two games, and will not be able to grind it out in Happy Valley the way they did in 2017.
Dan: Pitt stinks. I know people hate stating that outright because they don’t want to jinx it. But that is a bad team and a bad program, and to compound that, they have been dealt some tough injury luck this season. I fully expect them to fold against Penn State like they did last year.
Penn State seems to have a pretty clear talent advantage all across the field. How do you expect James Franklin and the coaching staff to attack the Panthers on both sides of the ball?
Jarrod: They need to establish the run game early against Pitt, whether it be with Sean Clifford, or the bevy of backs at their disposal. Outside the tackle box, the receivers should be able to find areas to get open against Pitt's secondary, and with success in the run game, that should open things up to get the ball into the hands of the three amigos: Justin Shorter, Jahan Dotson, and KJ Hamler. Defensively, there might be a little more flavor up front, but I believe the defensive line can keep Pickett off balance throughout the game. If they can keep Pickett under duress, expect Penn State to win easily.
Craig: On offense, I honestly expect a lot of what we saw against Buffalo. Narduzzi trusts his secondary and will stack the box in an attempt to make Penn State one dimensional. Ricky Rahne is going to work to mismatches all over the field. On defense, Brent Pry is going to force Pickett into uncomfortable down and distances and force the junior to beat them throwing. It could be a big day for the Nittany Lion front, as Pitt has already allowed five sacks.
Dan: They should not need to do anything but play their game. On offense, I expect a healthy dose of the three guys who have brought it so far this season as targets for Sean Clifford: Pat Freiermuth, K.J. Hamler, and Jahan Dotson. Defensively, Penn State will likely try to kickstart the pass rush after a lackluster showing against Buffalo, and as Craig said, this is a good offensive line to break out against. On special teams? Touchbacks.
This game has gone progressively more in Penn State’s favor really since the second half of the 2016 edition. On paper it looks like more of the same for the Lions this weekend. Do you expect more of the same this weekend, and what’s your score prediction?
Jarrod: I certainly didn’t expect the dismantling of Pitt in the rain last year at Heinz Field, but alas it was a blow out. I think Penn State has more athleticism than they had last year and Pitt lost a lot of theirs. If Penn State gets out of the gate on fire, I expect them to score in the 50s again but I see them starting rather slow. Penn State 48, Pitt 14
Craig: It’s not good news for people wanting to see a competitive game. Pitt’s overall talent continues to slide, and they’ve lost excellent players to season-ending injury too. While I don’t expect Penn State to storm out of the gate, I also don’t expect the Nittany Lions to ever be seriously threatened. Penn State 44, Pitt 23
Dan: After the Idaho game, I would have predicted Penn State to rain fire on the Panthers. I am a little more cautious after seeing the youth on display, as I should have been. Still, I think a score right around what we saw last year is a fair expectation. Penn State 48, Pitt 13