What you need to know: No. 4 Penn State vs. Pitt
UNIVERSITY PARK — Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye on, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions on fall Saturdays this season.
Game details: vs. Pitt, 3:30 p.m., broadcast on ABC
Records: No. 4 Penn State (1-0, 0-0 Big Ten), Pitt (1-0, 0-0 ACC)
Venue: Beaver Stadium, where Penn State has won eight straight and 14 of its last 15 games.
Weather forecast (via AccuWeather): High of 63 degrees with some sun. It’ll be a little cooler than most games in early September, with temps dipping slightly as the game progress. With a mid-afternoon kickoff, the game should be ending around sunset.
Last week: Penn State claimed a 52-0 win over Akron, while Pitt bested Youngstown State 28-21 in overtime.
Overview: Revenge might be the most overused cliché that sportswriters use, and while it’s applicable in this case, Penn State’s got a lot more to play for than returning the favor. Penn State treated last year’s game like any other, while Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi cut off media availability for his players during the week (just like this year), saying he wanted to be the team’s lone voice leading up to the game. Short term, Narduzzi’s approach worked. Long term, it didn’t, as Pitt stumbled to an 8-5 finish, including a loss to a 6-6 Northwestern team in the Pinstripe Bowl. As you know, Penn State roared back to win the Big Ten and play in an epic Rose Bowl. Noteworthy for this season will be the absence of Jordan Whitehead, Pitt’s standout safety who’s been suspended for the first three games.
The line: Penn State –20.5
All-time series: Penn State leads 50-43-4, since 1893.
Last time they met (2016): Pitt won its de facto Super Bowl last year, besting Penn State 42-39 at Heinz Field. The Panthers jumped to a 28-7 lead before the Lions nearly came back, but a late drive was thwarted with a Trace McSorley interception. Working field-level during the game, what also stood out was the heat. It was like all 16 years’ worth of frustration of not playing came to life in the form of a suffocating swamp on the field. Saquon Barkley scored five touchdowns, but a depleted defense (the Lions were playing without key linebackers) gave up too much, too early, and the Panthers won in front of the biggest crowd to see a sporting event in Pittsburgh’s history (69,983).
Penn State wins if: Trace McSorley completes at least half of his passes. In other words, a workman-like performance. The Nittany Lions don’t have to play great to win, and Barkley doesn’t need a standout game. He had that last year, and it didn’t matter. As long as McSorley can routinely find his targets, Penn State should be fine.
Pitt wins if: the Panthers recreate the type of tunnel vision that led to last year’s victory. For something tangible, look to Pitt’s rushing attack. The Panthers gained 208 yards last week, and if they can possess the ball for at least 35 minutes and slow down Joe Moorhead and the Nittany Lion offense, that gives them a shot. Penn State doesn’t need a lot of time to score, but the fewer opportunities they have, the more Pitt’s chances improve.
Count on: a lively environment inside and outside Beaver Stadium. With a mid-afternoon kick, fans will have ample time to rev up for the game. That’s good and bad. Here’s hoping for a fun and safe pregame vibe that lasts throughout the game.
Keep an eye on: Penn State’s early play-calling. With Whitehead out, the Panthers’ biggest potential strength is now a glaring weakness: their secondary.
Trivia tidbit: Each team has won at least 10 straight in this series. Penn State with 10 in a row from 1966-75 and Pitt with 14 consecutive wins from 1922-38. That’s not something I’d expect for a series that’s as closely contested as this one.
Saquon Barkley record watch: After gaining 172 yards against Akron, Barkley now boasts 2,744 career rushing yards. He’s still chasing Evan Royster, who’s No. 1 with 3,972 yards.
*Season record: 1-0
*Season record against the spread: 1-0
Prediction: Penn State 56, Pitt 17
*HappyValley season predictions