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Pitt at Penn State Preview: Can Nittany Lions return the favor from 2016?

Penn State hosts Pitt for first time in 18 years, but can it avenge an early season loss from last year or will Narduzzi’s bunch do it again to PSU?

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When:Sat. Sept. 9; 3:30pm ET
Where:University Park, Pa.; Beaver Stadium (106,572)
TV:ABC
All-Time Series: PSU leads 50-43-4
Last Meeting: Pitt won, 42-39 (2016)
Line: Penn State (-21)

This was a series that held major weight in college football for a long time. But, a huge hiatus made many around the country forget about its importance. That’s all back in the 2017 version of the Keystone State clash, and 2016 has everything to do with it.

Pitt took down Penn State in a bit of a stunner early on in 2016, but the Nittany Lions went on to win the Big Ten title and go to the Rose Bowl. Now the Nittany Lions come in to this game against the Panthers hoping for a measure of revenge, but also to show they belong on top of the Big Ten as well.

A 52-0 win over Akron in Week 1 helped, meanwhile the visiting Panthers eeked out a 28-21 decision over FCS opponent, Youngstown State.

This matchup appears to be much different in terms of where the Nittany Lions and Panthers are as programs in 2017. Will that matter at all though? Let’s take a look inside the contest

1 Burning Question: Which coach has the right tact about the ‘rivalry’?

One thing is clear, Penn State head coach James Franklin and Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi approach this game and its significance in a very different fashion.

Narduzzi is embracing this game as a big rivalry for his team and saying it publicly, while Franklin is only putting emphasis on it because it is the game on the schedule this week. You literally can’t get more divergent in thought processes and attitudes towards this game.

Here’s how Narduzzi put it this week:

“I know it’s a rivalry game for us. Some people think it’s a rivalry game, some people don’t. It doesn’t matter what they think, it just matters what we think. If we think it is, then it is for us and it doesn’t have to be for them. Everybody has different rivalries.”

Let’s just say he isn’t one to shy away from speaking his mind. Meanwhile, Franklin has danced around embracing any rivalry talk according to that same Penn Live article.

“I understand the significance of this game and the importance of this game, but I’m also a huge believer that this is the most important game on our schedule because it’s the one this week,” Franklin said. “This week, the Pitt game is the most important game in the universe. I don’t want people to take what I’m saying the wrong way. This is the Super Bowl for us, because it’s the game we play Saturday.”

Franklin seems to want to downplay talk of a rivalry, and maybe it is part of his “one game at a time” mantra that he’s espoused ever since arriving in Happy Valley, but would it kill him to just embrace the game for what it is and say it?

Is anyone buying this schtick anymore? Honest question.

Should Pitt win in Happy Valley, would that be enough for Franklin to believe this game takes on some more importance going forward? Or will Narduzzi’s willingness to embrace the rivalry talk fall on deaf ears in year two?

Either way, we’re about to find out some major answers for both programs.

2 Key Stats:

200: Both Penn State and Pitt rushed for over 200 yards on the ground in Week 1 wins.

Could it be that the first team to 200 yards rushing as a team wins in Happy Valley? It very well could, espcially given Penn State’s stud of a running back in Saquon Barkley and Pitt’s reliance on the run game while it develops something at running back. The easy money is on Penn State having the advantage, especially on defense, as they gave up just 73 yards to Akron. Meanwhile, Pitt let Youngstown State go for over 100 yards on just 26 carries as a team.

2: That is the number of wins Pitt had last season over top 5 opponents.

Why should 2016 matter given where these two teams stand in 2017? Well, this number matters because it illustrates that you can’t take Pitt lightly if you are Penn State. While some in the fanbase see last season’s loss to the Panthers as a fluke, that team went on to own wins over eventual national champion, Clemson, and the eventual No. 5 team in the country Penn State. Sure, these teams are different, but Pat Narduzzi’s bunch may be closer to nationally competitive than they showed in the opener against Youngstown State.

3 Players to Watch:

Max Browne, QB (Pitt):  Pitt is entering a critical season for head coach Pat Narduzzi and the offense is now in the hands of former USC quarterback Max Browne. He transferred this offseason as a graduate transfer and if Pitt wants to make strides to become a true contender, he’s got to be the answer. There are plenty of questions as to whether that is really the case after Week 1. I mean, he only had 140 yards and a touchdown. The good news is he completed 70 percent of his passes, now let’s see if the offense, and Browne, can grow together against a really good FBS defense.

Quadree Henderson, WR (Pitt): If you want to know who is winning this game on Saturday, may we suggest finding what Henderson is doing on the stat sheet. He’s not only one of the most dangerous return men in CFB, Henderson is as dangerous as they come with the ball in his hands. Case in point last week — Henderson touched the ball 10 times on offense and nine of them came as a running play. He put up 77 yards rushing and had one catch as well. The goal has been more touches as a receiver, but if Penn State wants to win, the defense and special teams have to contain Henderson.

Mike Gesicki, TE (Penn State): Almost all that was said about Henderson could apply to Mike Gesicki and Penn State’s chances of winning this game. Everyone knows that stopping Saquon Barkley is priority No. 1, but what makes that focus deadly is the McSorely to Gesicki combination in the pass game. He’s a perfect foil for the play-action pass game due to his ability to get open in space and be a physical receiver as well. If Penn State is winning, Gesicki’s name is likely at or near the top of the stat sheet as well.

Prediction:

What everyone seems to be missing heading in to this game is the disparity that exists between Penn State and Pitt’s rushing attacks. With a rebuilding ground game for Pat Narduzzi’s Panthers, Penn State should be able to take full advantage on defense as well as offensively. Saquon Barkley may not be as efficient as he was last weekend, but he’ll get in the end zone a few times and seal up this victory early in the third quarter.

Penn State 49, Pitt 17

 

*all stats are from CFBstats.com unless otherwise noted. 

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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Football

talking10 Power Poll: Surprises galore in Week 1 poll

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We’re back…after a long offseason, the staff is finally back to watching football, crunching numbers and giving you our opinions on all things Big Ten football.

It also means our weekly staff Power Poll is back as well.

This season we’ve got five staff members voting every week. That includes the following names:

Andy Coppens@AndyOnFootball

Phil Harrison@PhilHarrisonCFB

Philip Rossmann-Reich – @RiseNU

Dave Fitzgerald@BuckeyeFitzy

Zach Worthington@Worthyton

Normally the opening week of the season provides little in the way of knowledge, but that certainly wasn’t the case in 2017. Dare we say the first week of action for the Big Ten was highly entertaining?

You can say that, and we did over at the #B1GRewind Show.

But, how did all of that excitement shake out when it came time to vote? Let’s take a look at the official poll for Week 1:

Let’s just say things were a bit wackier than usual, huh?

Takeaways:

  • Only three teams lost this week, yet it was a winner, Illinois, coming up dead last and it wasn’t even close. The Illini’s unimpressive three-point win was also our winner for “Disappointment of the Week” on the #B1GRewind show…so perhaps their last place finish in the power poll this week was really warranted. It also appears that hanging tough with ranked teams meant a lot to our voters.
  • While the rest of the college football world is in love with Ohio State…our staff is much more in love with the Nittany Lions…well not “much more” but they won out with three first place votes and OSU falling outside the top two in one voters mind.
  • It appears there is going to be an interesting battle for the middle of the pack over the next few weeks. Michigan State was No. 7 in this poll, but had just a three-point lead on No. 10 Nebraska. Let’s just say the next few weeks should shake out the middle a bit more.
  • Speaking of close fights…the battle between Michigan and Wisconsin for the third spot should be an interesting one indeed. Can Wisconsin’s offense keep up the high-scoring and keep UW ahead or will Michigan’s exciting youth movement grow up fast enough to challenge for the top of the East division and thus our poll as well?
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Football

talking10 Pick’Em league has arrived!

Join our staff in a season-long Big Ten predictions challenge! Come on…you know you want to know our picks and beat up on us for bad plays!

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We’ve had fun on the talking10 podcast giving you previews and predictions over the last few seasons. This year we’re turning that up a notch around here.

Yes, you can now play along with us each and every week! Welcome to the talking10 Pick’Em league brought you by Yahoo! Sports.

Each week you’ll hear us make our picks on Wednesday night and filling out our sheets live on the Podcast. You can play alongside all of our staff and shame us as you win or we get to laugh at you as we rise to the top.

This Pick’Em league is free of charge and is for more than just bragging rights. The winner at the end of the season gets a special prize package from us here at talking10. So join up with the following information:

League ID: 3991

Password: Delany17

Finally, please make sure to make your team name your Twitter handle or your first & last name so we have a way to reach out to you once the season is over….if you win!

We dare you to beat us! We double dog dare you!

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Badgers football

Top 25 Players in the Big Ten for 2017: No’s. 5-1

Our preseason Top 25 players in the Big Ten list comes to its conclusion. Who took the top spot and did anyone surprise inside the top 5?

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It is almost time for pads to start popping and helmets to start cracking together…and that means football season is right around the corner. Here at talking10 it also means the release of our annual Big Ten Preseason Top 25 Players list.

Top 25 List: No’s 25-21 | No’s 20-16 | No’s 15-11 | No. 10-6 |

We’ve reached the end of the road here and that means some of the best players we’re likely to see in the Big Ten for 2017. Consider these the ones to watch and the ones that will likely have a major impact on what happens to the Big Ten title race.

So who are those players? Let’s find out together.

Don’t forget to follow our staff of Andy Coppens, Phil Harrison, Philip Rossman-Reich and Zach Worthington on Twitter for their breakdowns of the Top 25 and their individual lists.

No. 5. — Troy Fumagalli, TE (Wisconsin)

2016 Season Stats: 47 receptions, 580 yards, 2 TD’s
Best Game: Cotton Bowl vs. Western Michigan – 6 receptions, 83 yards, 1 TD

Fumagalli came in to 2016 as a complete unknown. He opened eyes with a 7-reception, 100-yard day in the opener against LSU. In between he managed to become one of the key components to Wisconsin’s passing game and was easily the favorite target of freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook.

His monster start was bookended with a huge effort to help the Badgers win the Cotton Bowl over Western Michigan. There are few tight ends with as sure of hands and as important to keeping drives alive as Fumagalli. Perhaps most impressive? Everyone knew to cover him and he’d still make the big play.

No. 4.  — Josey Jewell, LB (Iowa)

2016 Season Stats: 124 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 9 pass breakups, 5 QB hurries
Best Game: vs. Northwestern – 16 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sack

Perhaps no player on this list better embodies the spirit and mentality of his team than Iowa middle linebacker Josey Jewell. He’s a tough customer and a no-frills player who does his job to a very high level. After racking up 126 tackles his sophomore season, Jewell repeated the effort with 124 last season.

Let’s just say he wasn’t a one-hit wonder, and plenty of opposing running backs found that out the hard way in 2016. In a conference loaded with quality linebackers, Jewell may be the most stable and least talked about of the bunch. He’s also the most productive, and that gets him top billing amongst all defensive players in the B1G.

No. 3. — Trace McSorley, QB (Penn State)

2016 Season Stats: 57.9 comp. %, 3,614 yards, 29 TD’s, 8 INT’s; 365 yards, 7 TD’s rushing
Best Game: vs. Wisconsin (B1G Championship) – 71 comp %, 384 yards, 4 TD’s

One of Penn State’s biggest question marks last season was how the QB situation would unfold with a new coordinator and a QB who had never taken a collegiate snap starting. The answer was that Trace McSorley and coordinator Joe Moorhead were a match made in heaven.

He’s the perfect blend of arm talent, mental toughness and athleticism to run Moorhead’s scheme. Few question if McSorley can lead this team back to a Big Ten title after a surprising title run last season. I mean, he did throw for 3,600 yards and a cool 29 touchdowns to eight interceptions.

No. 2. — Justin Jackson, RB (Northwestern)

2016 Season Stats: 298 carries, 1,524 yards, 5.1 avg., 11 TD’s; 35 receptions, 219 yards
Best Game: vs. Pitt (Pinstripe Bowl) – 32 carries, 224 yards, 3 TD’s

Jackson drew 2 of the 4 first place votes available and the internal debate was a big one between the obvious top choices on this list. Jackson topped the rushing list in the Big Ten last year in both total yards and yards per game.

He’s also rushed for 1,000 yards for three-straight seasons and could be in line to break all sorts of school and conference records this season. All of it while not really having the hype machine turned on much. He’s just not a flashy back, but will kill you with speed and power along with patience.

Picking between Jackson and our No. 1 player on the list may just be a preference on style over production and you can’t go wrong either way.

No. 1. — Saquon Barkley, RB (Penn State)

2016 Season Stats: 272 carries, 1,496 yards, 18 TD’s; 28 receptions, 402 yards, 4 TD’s
Best Game: @ Purdue – 18 carries, 207 yards, 2 TD’s; 3 receptions, 70 yards

It is only fitting that the conference everyone associates with running backs has a running back at the top of the list. Saquon Barkley may not only be the best running back in the B1G, he is likely the best running back in the country.

Again, like Jackson, he received two first place votes in our polling, but received second place nods from the other voters to race out to the lead. Few backs in college football area as difficult to bring down as Barkley is due to his shiftiness and his ability to hurdle defenders on a dime.

He’s as close to a human highlight reel at running back as we have in the modern game, and don’t be surprised to see him in the mix for the Heisman Trophy at the end of the season if he can replicate what happened last season.

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Big Ten

Top 25 Players in the Big Ten for 2017: No’s 20-16

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It is almost time for pads to start popping and helmets to start cracking together…and that means football season is right around the corner. Here at talking10 it also means the release of our annual Big Ten Preseason Top 25 Players list.

Top 25 List: No’s 25-21 |

After unveiling the first five players for the 2017 season, we continue our annual countdown of the best the Big Ten has to offer according to our staff.

Don’t forget to follow our staff of Andy Coppens, Phil Harrison, Philip Rossman-Reich and Zach Worthington on Twitter for their breakdowns of the Top 25 and their individual lists.

No. 20 — Michael Deiter, OC/G (Wisconsin)

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2016 Season Stats: Started all fourteen games in 2016 (ten at center and four at left guard). He was a consensus all-Big Ten honorable mention for the second year in a row, and anchored a line that saw the Badgers rush for 203.1 yards per game.
Best Game: vs. Illinois (led the O-line in a team effort of 363 yards rushing, 6TDs and no INTs)

Deiter is the arguably the most valuable and versatile player on the offensive line. He returns for his third year, so there’s also tons of experience to draw from. Wisconsin will always be a run first team, but we can’t forget about the passing game. To that end, he has been worked at left tackle some in the spring, so there’s a good shot he’ll at least be seeing some time against edge rushers that will be hell-bent on getting to the quarterback.

He’s played the interior of the line, has had to call out blocking assignments, and is a two-time honorable mention All-Big Ten performer. He’ll be counted on again to be the leader of Wisconsin’s vaunted offensive line tradition in 2017.

No. 19 — David Blough, QB (Purdue)

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2016 Season Stats: 3,352 passing yards, 295 for 517 (57.1%), 25 TDs, 21 INTs, 4 TDs rushing
Best Game: vs. Iowa (458 yards passing on 30 for 59 (50.8%), 5 TDS, 1 INT

There’s no questioning the talent No. 11 possesses. But up until last year, it had just been potential with a lot of inconsistent play. While the decision making still needs to get better, Blough can make all the throws in the book. He is accurate deep, has a big arm, and when hot, can give even the best of secondaries fits.

Purdue has long been known as the cradle of quarterbacks in the Big Ten, and if Blough can cut down on the interceptions and learn the new system head coach Jeff Brohm, we might be looking at a first team All-Big Ten type talent. He’ll get the volume, he just needs to grow as a decision maker and be more consistent — especially against the better defenses in the league.

No. 18 — D’Cota Dixon, S (Wisconsin)

Embed from Getty Images

2016 Season Stats: 60 total tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 1 sack, 4 INTs, 4 PBs, 1 FF, and 1 recovered fumble
Best Game: vs. Ohio State (9 total tackles, 1 INT)

Dixon is the steady safety that never misses an assignment and seems to have a knack for the big play. His interception late in the game sealed the win over LSU on September 3, and another INT in the end zone in overtime ended Nebraska’s bid for an upset in Camp Randall on October 29.

He earned third team All-Big Ten as well as Academic All-Big Ten last year. He is a great leader on and off the field and is very involved in the community, but it’s his play on the field that gets him the recognition in our Top 25. As the game has progressed to more and more spread attacks — with the Big Ten being no exception — having a safety as a leader and big-play guy who can read things is paramount to the success of the defense. Dixon fits that bill.

He’s already been named to the Bronko Nagurski Trophy watchlist this preseason. The award is given annually to the player judged to be the best defensive player in the country, and is handed out by the Football Writers Association of America. The Badger D is counting on his steady play in the back-end of the defense to keep up the high level they’ve been playing at over the last few years.

No. 17 — Jack Cichy, LB (Wisconsin)

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2016 Season Stats: 60 total tackles, 7 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 2 passes defended
Best Game: vs. Ohio State (15 tackles, 3.5 TFLs)

Cichy probably doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. Part of that is likely because of his size, and another part is largely due to an injury that cut his season short last year. Still, No. 48 is another hard-nosed, 100% effort Wisconsin inside linebacker who is not afraid to throw his body into the fray.

In 2016, he was a semi-finalist for the Butkus Award, Lott IMPACT Trophy quarter-finalist, and All Big Ten honorable mention. And that was in just seven games of duty.

He’ll once again be looking to anchor a defense that has set the template for being stingy and aggressive. If he can stay healthy in 2017, he will be a force once again, and get further notoriety than what he already has.

As far as the preseason awards go, he is on the Bednarik, Nagurski, and Lott IMPACT Trophy watch-lists, and for good reason.

No. 16 — Marcus Allen, S (Penn State)

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2016 Season Stats: 110 tackles, 1 fumble recovery, 3 passes defended
Best Game: vs. Minnesota (22 tackles)

Allen led the Nittany Lions in tackles last year — as a safety. Yes, a player out of the secondary led the entire defense in tackles. Let that sink in for a moment, because it’s the first time a safety has done that in Happy Valley since James Boyd did it in 2000.

Allen is very good at diagnosing plays on the back-end, but even better at coming up in run support, and off his initial read to make stops closer to the line of scrimmage. He’s not afraid to stick his head in on bigger players, and has great break and explosion after recognition.

In 2016, he was named All-Big Ten third team by the Coaches, and so far in 2017 he is on the Nagurski, Lott IMPACT, and Bednarik watch-lists. He is another talented defender on the back end that should play a huge part in the continuation of the Penn State resurgence.

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