Pitt is a familiar foe for many Penn State fans and not just because the Panthers beat the Nittany Lions at Heinz Field a year ago. Of all the teams Penn State counts as its biggest rivals, Pitt is the closest to home and that leads to a lot of in-state recruiting battles and smack talk between fans. Even with that familiarity factor, this week’s game should look a lot different from the 2016 edition.
First of all, the Lions will get the home field advantage of Beaver Stadium this time around. There’s also an experience edge for the Nittany Lions as Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley return to action while Nate Peterman and James Conner have moved on to the NFL. To talk about the players stepping into their shoes and other factors bound to affect this rivalry game, we tracked down CardiacHill, who manages the SB Nation Pitt blog, Cardiac Hill.
Black Shoe Diaries: Pitt appeared to be cruising to victory against FCS opponent Youngstown State last Saturday with a 21-0 halftime lead. What changed in the second half that led to the Penguins coming back and forcing overtime?
Cardiac Hill: I think the biggest thing is that Pitt really took their foot off the pedal and went into cruise control mode. They weren't completely dominant in building that lead but I don't believe they viewed Youngstown State as a credible threat after getting up early. Quarterback Max Browne even admitted following the game that Pitt eased up after that lead. The Panthers had a 21-7 lead deep into the fourth quarter and I think the mentality shifted of one from trying to keep the pressure on to getting out of there healthy and taking it easy. That obviously was the wrong approach and it nearly cost them.
BSD: Jester Weah and Quadree Henderson are supposed to be major weapons for new quarterback Max Browne, but each receiver hauled in just one reception last Saturday. Will Pitt be more eager to get the ball in their hands against Penn State?
CH: I think they'll be forced to do more passing even if only out of necessity in trying to score with Penn State, who will undoubtedly put points on the board. Pat Narduzzi commented after last week's game that Youngstown State really made a concerted effort to keep the ball out of Weah's hands and that they challenged him quite a bit. Weah isn't a guy that will catch a ton of balls but he's a deep threat and led the ACC in yards per reception last season. If he's not out there catching 30- and 40-yard passes, it's easy to limit his production beyond that. He's not the short-route workhorse that Tyler Boyd was.
Henderson is a bit of a different case. While a great all-purpose threat, he's not a great receiver. That was a big focal point by he and Narduzzi in the offseason but, frankly, I don't know that he's improved there much. You'll see him on the jet sweeps that Pitt ran to perfection last year and he's always a threat to return a kickoff or punt. But purely as a receiver, I'm not sure we'll see many big days out of him this year. I'm expecting more big plays in the passing game to be made by the talented tight ends that Pitt has, to be honest.
BSD: The passing game wasn't very exciting against Youngstown State, but tailback Qadree Ollison showed great versatility with two touchdowns on the ground as well as a team-leading five receptions. Can he replace James Conner's 2016 production?
CH: I can see Ollison matching the 1,100 yards that Conner had last season but he's not as strong a runner, in my opinion. Ollison is the team's starter right now but not with nearly the same job security Conner enjoyed. Pitt will give carries to Darrin Hall, the primary backup, and freshman A.J. Davis is working his way into the mix as well. Pitt beat out a ton of major programs (i.e. Ohio State, Texas, Georgia, Florida State, Florida) for Davis' services and he's highly regarded, so I expect his workload to increase now that they've burned his redshirt. The Panthers also have Chawntez Moss, who impressed last year.
None of that even accounts for guys like Henderson and, when he returns from suspension, Jordan Whitehead, who will eat up carries on sweeps and trick plays. Ollison could have a 1,000-yard season as he did as a freshman two years ago when Conner was injured in the opener and missed most of the year. However, I'm not fully convinced he will replace Conner's production entirely because Pitt has several other guys in the mix.
BSD: Pitt's pass defense was an problem area last year. Last year, it allowed Trace McSorley to throw for 332 yards and 9.5 yards per attempt in just his second career start. On Saturday, it allowed Youngstown State to throw for 311 yards on 9.7 yards per attempt. What is Pat Narduzzi doing to improve this area of the team?
CH: The biggest thing he's doing is recruiting hard in that area. Unfortunately, the team has had some issues, despite recruiting well there. Safety Jordan Whitehead is the best player in the secondary but is missing the next two games due to a suspension. Last year, the Panthers landed prized recruit Damar Hamlin, but he battled an injury for most of the year and barely made an impact. He continues fighting some injury stuff and, right now, is a non-factor. Pitt then landed highly-touted safety Paris Ford this year but after some academic issues, he missed almost all of training camp and Narduzzi believes he will need this year to redshirt. I could see him playing later in the year but would be floored if he played at all this week unless Narduzzi is throwing smokescreens up.
Paul Chryst came here and rebuilt the offensive line. I believe Narduzzi will do the same with the secondary. But it will take time and, so far, Pitt has just struggled getting some guys on the field. Pitt has recruited beyond those guys, and a few should pan out. It would almost be embarrassing if they didn't just because the program has added so many guys there. But a problem is that some of the best talent they've recruited there hasn't yet worked out.
BSD: The Panthers' run defense has been the stronger part of the unit lately, and last year it held Saquon Barkley to 85 yards on 20 carries. However, offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead is always looking for new ways to get the ball to his star player in space. How does Pitt plan on slowing down Barkley this time around?
CH: My guess is they'll keep linebackers up as much as they can and play against the run more than they will the pass. Pitt's problem with Barkley is two-fold, though. They need to keep enough guys up to account for Barkley but also need their linebackers to be able to help in the passing game with a weak secondary. And because the secondary is weak, the Nittany Lions can exploit Pitt in the passing game. There's no easy solution to stop Barkley, obviously. He's going to get his yards and I'd say the biggest thing Pitt needs to do is keep him in check on 2nd downs to try to force Penn State into passing situations on 3rd down. The problem is that, with the secondary, Pitt might still lose the 3rd-and-7 battle more than they win it.
BSD: The Panthers are three-touchdown underdogs on Saturday. How do you see the game going for the Panthers?
CH: I was part of PennLive's recent panel where they secured opinions from media on both sides. My response there was that I could see it being closer than expected or even worse than expected. I just don't have a good handle on this even in the slightest. The same folks that will say it's impossible for Pitt to win or keep it close are the same ones that said that beating Clemson on the road last year was a pipe dream. No one in their right mind figured that would be close and I've seen way too much football to rule most teams out of anything, especially in a rivalry game.
I don't expect Pitt to win and it might even get ugly, though. Two things I do like from a Pitt standpoint is Pat Narduzzi's track record of keeping games close against top teams and also the way he places so much importance on this game. Including bowl games, only three of Pitt's 10 losses under him have been by double digits and Pitt has played some of its best football against the top teams. They nearly beat what would become a top-10 Iowa team on the road in 2015 before losing by a last-second field goal. Of course, they beat what turned out to be a great Penn State team last year. Beat No. 2 Clemson on the road last year. Lost by seven to what was ultimately a top-10 Oklahoma State team last year. The worst loss they suffered by a top-10 (or eventual top-10 team) under Narduzzi was, I think, losing to No. 5 Notre Dame in 2015, falling by 12. He just gets guys up to play.
The disparity in talent may be too great this season to keep things close with Penn State, so a 30-point loss wouldn't absolutely shock me. But I'm inclined to say about a 15-point win for the Nittany Lions. Until Narduzzi's teams start getting blown out of the water more, it's too hard to expect that to happen, even in a tough environment. Maybe that happens this time maybe it doesn't. But, just as it is too hard to expect a Pitt win here, it gets harder and harder to expect to see Narduzzi's teams on the ends of lopsided finishes. It's happened a couple of times but hasn't happened when playing against the best teams they've faced. And considering the amount of planning and focus that he puts into this game, that helps me think that it's not a guarantee that things get out of hand.
A big thank you goes out to CardiacHill the blogger for helping us learn more about the Pitt Panthers in advance of the big game on Saturday. For more on Pitt’s football, basketball, and non-revenue sports programs, check out Cardiac Hill the blog all year round!