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Penn State Nittany Lions vs. Pittsburgh Panthers: Preview, Predictions and Prognostications

When: Sept. 10; 12 p.m. ET/11 a.m. CT
Where: Pittsburgh, Pa., Heinz Field (68,400)
TV: ESPN
All-Time Series: Penn State leads 50-42-4
Last Meeting: Pitt won 12-0 (Sept. 16, 2000)
Line: Pitt by 6

They finally did it. The two biggest teams in Pennsylvania (sorry Temple) will play each other for the first time in 16 years in a home-and-home series. The sellout crowd will see the first game between these two programs at Heinz Field. Yes, the last game played in this series took place at old Three Rivers Stadium.

Penn State comes off a 33-13 win over Kent State in the typical non-conference game from Penn State. The Nittany Lions struggled out of the gate but buckled down and adjusted in the second half to blow out the Flashes.

Pittsburgh’s first game was a relatively easy 28-7 victory over Villanova that saw the return of running back James Conner, who was diagnosed with and fought off Hodgkin’s Lymphoma this offseason. He rushed for 17 carries and 53 yards scoring two touchdowns (one rushing, one receiving). It was an emotional moment for the team and for him.

1 Burning Question: Can Penn State get to a fast start?

Penn State has this strange history of getting off to slow starts in the team’s non-conference games. The Nittany Lions were slow again Saturday, leading 16-13 after the first half. That is a recurring theme in openers — Penn State led Buffalo 10-0 in the second game of the season last year and led 10-7 in the opening loss to Temple last year.

This game more resembles last year’s matchup with Temple. The kind of sleeping giant team that can hang around and win. Except Pitt here is favored and, at home, it should be.

Penn State’s defense should remain very good. The offense though has to pick itself up. The Nittany Lions gained just 354 yards of total offense against Kent State. Trace McSorley was 16 for 31 in his first start. He was a bit uneven although Penn State ended up taking the game in the second half.

The Nittany Lions have to make sure they add the offense to support their defense which will more likely than not keep them in the game.

Saquon Barkley had 105 yards on 22 carries in Saturday’s game. He was able to get things going. That means a lot of the onus will remain on McSorley to take a step up.

Pitt’s defense is not a pushover. There is not going to be time to settle in like there was against Kent State. But the Panthers are also not an incredibly strong or consistent team. They have their own flaws.

If Penn State can race out early and find some rhythm for their quarterback, they could take this win.

2 Key Stats

172: That is the number of yards Pittsburgh gave up to Villanova last week. OK, that is Villanova. Not exactly the strongest competition. But Big Ten fans know what Pat Narduzzi defenses do. They are aggressive, they hit hard and they are fairly strong in all areas. The Panthers last year in Narduzzi’s first year were 50th in defensive S&P+. They will look to continue to get better. Their first week showed they can play defense at a shutout level. This is obviously a step up.

30: That is how long Amani Oruwariye had to run for a pick-6 in the third quarter that helped Penn State get some breathing room against Kent State. The Nittany Lions forced two turnovers in the game. Penn State’s defense is ahead of its offense at the moment and that will have to remain the case heading into this critical game. Penn State will probably not be able to rely on a defensive score to win this game, but the team will need to create turnovers and make things as easy as possible.

3 Key Players

Saquon Barkley, Penn State RB: In games that are going to be as closely competed as this one, a team has to rely on its stars. Penn State and Pitt both have strong defenses. Whichever of their star players steps to the plate will likely win. Offensively, Barkley may be the best player in the game. That will give Penn State a very good chance. He rushed for 105 yards on 22 carries. He will have to do that against a tough Pitt defense to give Penn State a chance and take pressure off quarterback Trace McSorley.

Nyeem Warman-White, Penn State LB: The graduate senior had his entire season taken away last year with an injury. He returned this year and had a strong game in his return to the field four tackles, two pass breakups and a half sack. That kind of balance in pass coverage and attacking the backfield will be important for Penn State to keep the pressure up and dictate play.

Avonte Maddox, Pittsburgh DB: Maddox was one of the big defensive players in last week’s game against Villanova and showed he could help support in the backfield as much as he does in the secondary. He totaled five tackles with two sacks last week. He was an All-ACC honorable mention and helps out with special teams too. Maddox will have to help with the run game against Sequon Barkley and continue to limit McSorley for Pittsburgh to control this game.

4 Bold Prognostications

–James Conner scores again: James Conner scored twice in his first game back after beating cancer the last year. He had a relatively modest game on the ground. But Pitt will turn to him again and he will score again for the Panthers against the Nittany Lions.

Penn State scores on defense again: Pittsburgh may not be a big turnover team, but Penn State’s defense is certainly opportunistic. The Nittany Lions broke open the game last week with a defensive touchdown. They will need their defense to set up another score with a turnover to help the offense out.

Sequon Barkley tops 100 yards: That is usually a good sign to Penn State winning. Barkley is going to have to top 100 yards in most games to give the Nittany Lions a chance to win. He will do it against a tough Pitt defense.

Penn State outdraws Pitt: The game at Heinz Field is a sell out. Something tells me not everyone will wear gold (although they all will be wearing blue). Penn State travels. And especially in state, the Nittany Lions are going to expect a home field advantage in this road game.

5 Staff Predictions

Andy: Penn State 28-24
Dave: Pittsburgh 24-13
Phil H.: Pittsburgh 27-20
Phil R-R: Pittsburgh 24-21
Zach: Pittsburgh 23-20

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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