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Interviews with Football Frenemies: Pittsburgh Panthers Edition

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The Panthers are looking to get one last win in against the Nittany Lions before the in-state rivalry goes dormant.

Ohio v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Penn State Nittany Lions and Pittsburgh Panthers will meet for the 100th time on Saturday afternoon in the 100th edition of the rivalry dubbed the Keystone Classic.

Both teams are coming off week-two victories but in a rivalry games, records go out the window.

Saturday’s matchup will be the final time the two programs will meet for the foreseeable future, which makes the game worth all that much more. To learn more about the Panthers, we reached out to JD Schroeder of Cardiac Hill, SB Nation’s site dedicated to Pittsburgh athletics.

Black Shoe Diaries: Pittsburgh brought in Mark Whipple and his pass-heavy offense to Pittsburgh this past offseason, how has the Panthers offense looked through the first two weeks and how has quarterback Kenny Pickett adjusted?

JD Schroeder: For those who haven’t kept up at home, Pitt is on its 4th offensive coordinator since Pat Narduzzi became head coach. Two were hired away by SEC programs, and the 3rd, Shawn Watson, was fired at the end of last season.

It’s certainly a huge departure from last year’s team. Pitt would rather run it down your throat than really pass at all in 2018, and that offense produced two 1,000-yard rushers. Pickett was serviceable last year, but the only game where he had a significant passing impact was Wake Forest.

A year later, Pitt lost both of those backs, and 4 of the 5 offensive linemen to go along with the new offensive system. Under Whipple, Pitt’s rushing play percentage has dropped from 71.5% of plays in 2018 to 46.2% through Pitt’s first two games. Pitt is throwing A LOT more, and the results have been mixed. The first game against Virginia, Pitt struggled on offense outside of the 2nd quarter. The offense looked noticeably improved against Ohio, but didn’t score as many points as watching the game would have led you to believe.

Pickett had a bad opening game, but Ohio was a career day for him throwing the ball for 321 yards on 26/37 passing for touchdown and 0 interceptions. Granted, it’s Ohio, but Pickett looked much more comfortable. Pickett has faced teams to the caliber of Penn State before, but the rushing game isn’t quite good enough to rely on fully so Pickett may have to make things happen on his own. Pickett has flourished in that situation before (Miami in 2017 in his first start), and also imploded (2018 ACC title game versus Clemson)

Black Shoe Diaries: The Panthers defense lost one of their best players in Rashad Weaver before the season began, what kind of impact has the injury had and what are the expectations for this Panthers defense?

JD Schroeder: Weaver was a huge loss for the Panthers. He was Pitt’s likely best player on defense. The defensive line was arguably going to be one of the best in the ACC. I would have still rated it pretty good after the injury, but Pitt has lost another defensive lineman in Keyshon Camp who is now out for the year as well. Pitt’s had a few players step up in their absence, but more on that in a mintue

Overall, this is starting to look like the defense that was expected when Narduzzi took over the program. The pass defense is noticeably improved compared to past years, and the defense seems to be overall faster and more confident in their assignments. Pitt’s defense dealt with a lot of short fields in the Virginia game, but yards wise they’re a top 30 defense.

Black Shoe Diaries: With the injury to Weaver, who are some players to watch on the Pittsburgh defense this weekend? We’re assuming that former Penn State targets Damar Hamlin and Paris Ford will be some key players?

JD Schroeder: You’re 100% right that Hamlin and Ford are key cogs in this defense at safety. Hamlin is now a senior, and after leading the team in tackles last year is doing so again. These first two games have been Ford’s first as a starter, and he’s so far been worth the wait of getting him on the field. Ford is quick, and hits hard. Dane Jackson at CB was a honorable mention All-ACC last year along with Hamlin.

Up front, DL Patrick Jones will try to do what he can to get into Penn State’s backfield. He was supposed to be the other end of the defensive line opposite Weaver. Jaylen Twyman also had an impressive game against Ohio, so he’s one to watch out for.

Finally, Florida grad transfer Kylan Johnson has also started to stand out a bit at linebacker.

Black Shoe Diaries: Likewise, who will be the players to watch on offense for the Panthers on Saturday?

JD Schroeder: Aside from Pickett, the two players that likely will determine if Pitt can get the offense going are wide receivers Maurice Ffrench (not a typo) and Taysir Mack. Ffrench is quick, and has shown an ability to get a lot of yards after the catch. Mack is more of a deep threat, but he’s had a couple bad drops in his first two games.

Pitt hasn’t had any running backs truly stand out yet, but a guy to watch out for is true frosh Vincent Davis. He drew rave reviews from camp, and despite his small size has proven to be effective in the few snaps he’s seen.

Black Shoe Diaries: Pittsburgh is a 17-point underdog entering the game, over the last three games we’ve seen a rather close affair (for the most part) and then a blowout last season. But neither game made it feel like Pittsburgh really had a chance, unlike the 2016 game. What needs to go right for the Panthers to come away with a victory on Saturday or at least have a chance late in the game to potentially steal a victory?

JD Schroeder: It’s a little hard to say with the new offense, but last year Pitt tried to really slow the pace of the game down, and it was working for the most part through the first half. Pitt didn’t get some touchdowns where they needed to, and Penn State finally broke them to give the blowout that the final result was.

I’m going to guess Pitt does the same, but I think Pitt will hope the pass defense can cut off guys like Hamler to take away options from Sean Clifford. Clifford’s been excellent so far, and considering he is Penn State’s leading rusher as well, taking away the passing game might not be doom and gloom for Penn State either.

Pitt certainly has a tall task, and I’ll be curious to see what their strategy is to start the game.

Black Shoe Diaries: What is your final score prediction for Saturday’s game? Who do you think will be Pittsburgh’s player of the game?

JD Schroeder: I’m going to go Penn State 35, Pitt 20. This year is about that time that Franklin’s recruiting has started to pay off. Even a guy like Trace McSorley leaving isn’t a giant hurdle when you have someone like Clifford waiting in the wings.

This is a game I wish they were playing next year when Pitt’s offense is a bit older and knows the system better, but alas, that’s the nature of college football and especially this series.