Penn State looks for improvements as they head to Pitt for an in-state battle under the lights.
(13)Penn State (1-0) vs. Pitt (1-0)
Kickoff: 8 p.m., Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
The Betting Line: Penn State -9.5
TV: ABC- Sean McDonough (play-by-play), Todd Blackledge (analyst), Holly Rowe (sideline)
Weather: Chances of showers throughout the evening with temperatures cooling into the 60s.
PENN STATE RECORD: 37-17, 5th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 61-32, 7th Year
VS. PITT: 1-1
PITT RECORD: 22-17, 4th Year
OVERALL RECORD: Same
VS. PENN STATE: 1-1
NOW THE FUN PART….
PITT STATE OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE
This will be a crucial week for Penn State’s defense, as it sets the tone for the season and searches for an identity after an uneven performance against Appalachian State. After exceeding expectations in the first three quarters, the Nittany Lions defense suffered a late collapse that almost led to a disastrous upset by allowing 28 points in the fourth quarter.
Much of what makes Brent Pry’s defenses effective- remaining disciplined and making open field tackles, was nowhere to be seen at times. Players were often out of position and missed tackles became the norm. Fortunately, these problems are fixable- especially for a defense that is only returning two starters. Saturday will be an excellent indicator if these issues can be addressed, or if the defense takes a big step back in 2018.
Penn State will be looking to stop a different Pitt quarterback this year in Kenny Pickett, who made a name for himself by guiding a stunning upset against previously undefeated Miami in the final regular season game of 2017. While not the most physically-gifted quarterback, it’s obvious that Pickett has an outstanding feel for the game. He’s incredibly efficient, making smart decisions and often scrambles to pick up key first downs. In week one, he completed 72.1 percent of his passes against Albany for 154 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He also picked up 42 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
Among Pickett’s primary targets will be Rafael Araujo-Lopes, a small but speedy playmaker. Pitt tries to get creative in getting the ball in Araujo-Lopes’ hands, and it won’t take long to see why. The senior scored twice on his three receptions in week one. He’ll be a challenge for Penn State’s secondary, which is looking to bounce back following an overall poor performance in week one.
Senior running back Qadree Ollison is among Pitt’s primary playmakers, although he’s seen his role dwindle since rushing for more than a 1,000 yards as a freshman back in 2015. Ollison accumulated 126 total yards against Penn State last season, and got off to a solid start with a 71-yard rushing performance against Albany. Along with sophomore A.J. Davis, Ollison is used often out of the backfield as well to locate mismatches. Expect both backs to receive ample carries, with Pickett contributing many designed run plays as well.
Penn State’s defensive line should be boosted by the return of starting defensive tackle Kevin Givens, who was suspended for week one, as well as Shane Simmons, who is looking to make his season debut after recovering from a minor injury.
PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. PITT DEFENSE
If the sole overtime session against Appalachian State showed anything, it’s that Miles Sanders is ready to emerge as a star for the Penn State offense. Sanders carried the rock on all four OT plays, ending with the eventual game-winning touchdown. The latest SI coverperson ran tough, broke tackles, juked out and ran past defenders- basically everything to prove he’s an elite running back ready to carry the load. Mark Allen and Ricky Slade also saw significant time in the backfield, but expect Sanders to be the main ballcarrier moving forward.
Trace McSorley will likely look to get his two most experienced receivers back on track after subpar performances in week one. While Johnson had six receptions for 67 yards, he also dropped three passes. Surprisingly, Thompkins was played no part in the passing game- something that should change on Saturday. KJ Hamler proved to be a future star, and should play a bigger part of the gameplan after a monster fourth quarter that sparked Penn State’s late comeback. Jonathan Holland and Danny Dalton combined for three receptions for 38 yards as Penn State looks to replace Mike Gesicki’s productivity at the tight end position.
Penn State’s offensive line did not prove to be a strength as many had anticipated, so it will be interesting to see if the coaching staff makes any tweaks to the lineup or if they allow more time for the unit to jell. Pay special attention to the interior line, where Connor McGovern and Michal Menet are still adjusting to new positions.
Pitt returns plenty of experience from a defense that finished right in the middle of the pack (65th) in scoring defense. They are led by standout fifth-year senior Oluwaseun Idowu– a linebacker/safety hybrid who can make plays all over the field. He is coming off an outstanding junior campaign where he accumulated 94 tackles, 11.5 TFLs and five sacks. Sophomore defensive tackle Keyshon Camp will be a challenge for the interior line, and is coming off a two-sack performance in week one. Fifth-year senior Dewayne Hendrix also knows how to get to the quarterback and should cause some disruption on Saturday.
Pitt kicker Alex Kessman has a big leg but struggles with consistency issues. Kessman was 11 of 19 on field goal attempts in 2017, but also booted 55 and 56-yard kicks. He didn’t have a field goal attempt in week one, and missed one of his four extra points. Freshman Kirk Christodoulou got off to an excellent start in his first career game, averaging 46.5 yards per punt with a long of 56 yards.
Penn State’s Blake Gillikin, on the other hand, was uncharacteristically inconsistent in week one, but still averaged 43 yards on five punts. True freshman Jake Pinegar connected on his only field goal attempt in week one, a 32-yarder.
Penn State’s return game has the opportunity to be truly special this season. DeAndre Thompkins proved to be an explosive punt returner in 2017, and redshirt freshman KJ Hamler had a 52-yard kickoff return on his only attempt of the game. After providing a much-needed spark, Hamler may have the green light to take more returns out of the end zone moving forward.
The Nittany Lions kickoff team will need to find a way to improve. After a couple solid seasons, the unit resembled a sanction-era team where Penn State was heavily relying on walk-on players to man the special teams. The kickoff team will certainly be receiving extra attention this week in practice after allowing 43.5 yards per return against the Mountaineers- including a 100-yard return touchdown.
Penn State-38, Pitt-27
We know how much this game means to the Panthers, and they will come out playing like their hair is on fire after seeing an opportunity to knock off Penn State following an inconsistent performance in week one. The Nittany Lions will absolutely get Pitt’s best shot, and must be prepared to match their intensity.
Penn State still has a large talent gap over the Panthers, and should come out victorious as long they play close to their potential. They should also be motivated to prove that they are a much better team than the one that narrowly escaped an Appalachian State squad that turned out to be anything but a sacrificial lamb.
I’m sticking to my preseason prediction that Miles Sanders goes off on Saturday, running for 211 yards and two touchdowns. McSorley does McSorley things, and connects with KJ Hamler for a touchdown for the second week in a row.