What You Need to Know: Penn State V. Pitt
Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye on, and when and where you can catch the Nittany Lions on fall Saturdays this season.
Need-To-Know Details: at Heinz Field/Noon/ESPN
Weather Forecast (via AccuWeather): High of 85 degrees, with possible showers in the afternoon.
The Overview: The lead-up to the game is that Pitt needs this more. Or at the least, a win for the Panthers would do more for them than a victory would do for the Nittany Lions. That thinking’s backed up by Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi precluding his players from talking to the media this week. Penn State, meanwhile, opened up practice Wednesday to the media for the last 10 minutes (standard), and made eight players and an assistant coach available this week. Pitt changing its routine tells you they view this week differently, while for Penn State, it’s the next game on the schedule.
The Line: Penn State +5.5 or +6 (across various sites)
All-Time Series: Penn State leads 50-42-4.
Last Time They Met: Pitt tagged Penn State with a 12-0 loss at Three Rivers Stadium in 2000, the Panthers’ first win in the series since 1988. Previously, the Nittany Lions had won seven consecutive games against the Panthers.
Penn State Wins If, Part I: Saquon Barkley is the best player on the field. In a game where the two teams are separated by a field goal (the home team usually is given three points for home-field advantage), I take the team with the best player. Most days, that’s going to be Barkley. If Pitt neutralizes him at all — and that includes holding him to 125 yards or less — that might be enough for the Panthers.
Penn State Wins If, Part II: Assuming Barkley is held reasonably in check, the Nittany Lions have other options. After a generally good performance that included two touchdowns and maybe a few missed opportunities in the season opener, Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley will need to make at least a few plays to ensure Pitt doesn’t stack eight guys in the box in an attempt to stifle Barkley. But look to the other side of the ball for a game-changing play. In recent memory, two pick-6s for Penn State grabbed momentum. Just last week, Amani Oruwariye’s interception-turned-touchdown gave the Lions some space against Kent State. And against more formidable competition, Anthony Zettel’s 40-yard rumbling score against Ohio State in 2014 flipped that night at Beaver Stadium. The Lions nearly pulled off a big-time upset, losing 31-24 in double overtime after referees missed two crucial calls; an Ohio State interception that hit the ground, and the Buckeyes nailing a field goal after the play clock expired. After providing one touchdown in the season opener, the Lions’ secondary may have to duplicate the feat if the offense doesn’t have a breakout day.
Pitt Wins If: the Panthers can rattle McSorley. Penn State’s redshirt sophomore signal-caller was sacked just once last week, though that play resulted in Kent State’s only touchdown. McSorley was slammed from his blind side, resulting in a fumble that the Golden Flashes returned for a score. Saturday will be (far and away) the toughest environment McSorley has seen. How he responds after getting hit will tremendously impact the game’s outcome, as will how many times the Panthers can get him to the turf.
Count On: Lots of nostalgia. It’s been 16 years since these two in-state rivals played, and if you’re watching the game on TV, you’ll certainly see plenty of throwback footage. From Todd Blackledge and D.J. Dozier to Dan Marino and Tony Dorsett (and a few dozen other standouts), fans will be reminded that this game used to be one of the premier late-season match-ups in the entire country.
Keep An Eye On: Penn State’s defensive line, and specifically, Garrett Sickels. The Penn State defensive end recorded six tackles and a sack against Kent State, the preamble in what could be a standout season for the New Jersey native. The Nittany Lions registered seven sacks against the Golden Flashes, with Sickels one of seven players contributing at least a half-sack. Pitt running back James Conner is back and fully recovered after successfully defeating cancer in the offseason. The redshirt junior and 2014 ACC Player of the Year scored two touchdowns last week against Villanova, and his journey back to the field is one of the great storylines in all of college football this season. How much Sickels and the defensive line can disrupt Conner and the Pitt offense (or not disrupt) is top-of-mind for Penn State.
Trivia Tidbit of The Week, Part I: Penn State is 33-6-1 all-time in regular season games played at NFL stadiums, including winners in six of its last seven. The Lions’ last victory in such games came last season at M&T Bank Stadium, where they upended Maryland 31-30.
Trivia Tidbit of the Week, Part II: Pitt is Penn State’s most-often played opponent, with the 2019 matchup scheduled to be the 100th meeting between the teams.
*Season Record: 1-0
*Season Record Against the Spread: 1-0
Prediction: Penn State 27, Pitt 23