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Monday November 20 2017
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Penn State seeking bragging rights, redemption against Pitt

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The Nittany Lions are looking to avenge a 42-39 upset at the hands of Pitt in last year's installment of the headed Pennsylvania rivalry.

By Jarrod Prugar

 

Quite a big deal is being made by everybody and their mothers about the Penn State-Pitt game taking place this upcoming Saturday in Happy Valley although the coaches won't directly come out and say that.

It should come as no surprise Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi has essentially eliminated the media from covering his program this week as it's standard fare for the Keystone Classic. The media ban paid off last year in week-two as Narduzzi's Panthers were able to withstand a Penn State barrage of points in the second half to win 42-39. 

James Franklin and staff at Penn State are going about it as usual business courtesy of his Sunday tweet saying "it's on to Pitt, Pitt, Pitt, Pitt." 

This weekend both teams opened up their seasons at home with the Nittany Lions taking on Akron to the tune of a 52-0 throttling. The Panthers struggled to outlast Youngstown State in a 28-21 battle settled in overtime.

The win last season was a charming one for Narduzzi and his program but alas, the battle is ultimately decided on the football field where it looks as though Penn State's experienced team has the upper hand this time around.

Multi-Dimensional Offense

The biggest difference between last year's match-up against Pitt and this years for the Nittany Lions is their experience. Last year saw Penn State come into their week-two clash in game-two of first year offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead's touted offense while also adjusting to life without former quarterback Christian Hackenberg. This year sees the Nittany Lions returning the same coordinator and the dynamic Trace McSorley to the backfield along with Heisman-hopeful Saquon Barkley.

McSorley and the offense struggled early in first halves last year especially against the Panthers. In the game against Akron, the Penn State offense exploded for 35-points in the first half and while that wasn't against Pitt, it bodes well heading into this weekend. 

The Panthers stayed in their base defense for the better part of Saturday's game against Youngstown State not giving up anything to opponents they will face later in the season. However, in that base defense they are incredibly susceptible to the wheel route as well as passes across the middle, both areas where the multi-dimensional Penn State offense could do damage.

Featured on the wheel route out of the backfield will be Barkley, Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week for his performance Saturday, which anytime he gets the ball it bodes well for the Nittany Lions. Finding an athlete who will be able to keep Barkley in check on the Pitt defense will be a daunting task.  For the sake of this piece, let's say Pitt neutralized Barkley in the backfield.

On the opening possession of the Akron game, the Penn State offense marched nearly the length of the field starting on their own 26-yard line to get into the red zone before McSorley was intercepted in the end zone.  That drive featured no touches of any kind by Barkley but a steady diet of McSorley's arms and legs getting them down the field.

Let's say they neutralize McSorley's feet keeping him as a passer. Well, McSorley has plenty of options to throw to as well. Remember the vulnerability across the middle? Tight end Mike Gesicki feasts in that area. If that is neutralized, McSorley can go over the top to receivers such as Juwan Johnson, DaeSean Hamilton, or DeAndre Thompkins. 

The Penn State offense is riding an eight-game stretch where they've scored 35 or more points in each of those games and looked like they could score at will against Akron. Now is Akron, Pitt? Absolutely not, however, stopping the multi-dimensional offense of the Nittany Lions is no small task. 

Limit damage of Quadree Henderson

Along with first half turnovers, Penn State fans probably still have nightmares of Quadree Henderson jet-sweeping his way all over the Nittany Lions defense last year. Penn State played close to the vest as far as their base defense was concerned against the Zips Saturday although they were able to get into the backfield often. 

Limiting Henderson will be pivotal to the success of the defense Saturday afternoon. The Panthers don't have Nate Peterman and James Conner in the backfield this year, they've got Max Browne and Qadree Ollison. Getting Henderson into open space is the key to making a rather bland Pitt offense successful. 

Stopping Henderson and forcing Browne to throw the football will be the key for Penn State's defense to hold Pitt off the scoreboard. Getting Browne, who is not fleet of foot, out of the pocket and throwing on the run against an experienced secondary would allow the NIttany Lions to control the game on the defensive side of the football. 

Outside of Henderson, the Panthers don't quite have the playmaking ability they did last year with Peterman and Conner and the offense did not look too great against the Penguins on Saturday. While it's not fair to take much out of an opening weekend game against an inferior opponent, the lack of offense against an FCS team is alarming. 

Penn State's ability to dictate the damage Henderson can do will determine whether the Keystone Classic will be won by the program from State College. 

Of note

The Nittany Lions will be holding pre-game ceremonies honoring their Big Ten Championship achieved in 2016. 2016 will go on the facade of the stadium for all to see as have the championship teams of years past. Pitt will need to get momentum early and keep it throughout the entirety of the game if they want any chance of going home victorious. Penn State fans have not forgotten about last year's defeat and the Panthers will know about that early and often Saturday afternoon. 

The game will kick-off Saturday afternoon on ABC at 3:30PM.

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