Exactly 360 days ago, Penn State went into Heinz Field in Pittsburgh to take on the Pitt Panthers. After handedly defeating Kent State in the opening weekend of the season, the Nittany Lions faced a much tougher opponent in the Panthers, in the first of a home and home series between the two former rivals. Despite picking 406 yards of offense and scoring 39 points, the Nittany Lions dropped the game 42-39. The defense simply could not get off the field or make the big third down stop when it was needed most. The Panthers amassed 432 of offense, primarily on the ground, as they gashed Penn State for 341 rushing yards. To Penn State’s credit, the team crawled its way back into the game after being down 28-7 in the second quarter, making it 28-21 and 35-31 at times, but couldn’t score again after Saquon Barkley punched in a touchdown with five minutes left and the offense secured a two point conversion, cutting the lead to three.
Flash forward to this weekend, and we see a much different matchup set to take place. First ad foremost, the series shifts to State College as the Nittany Lions get their second consecutive home game to start the season. While it’s not a tremendous travel for the Panthers, any time a team has to go on the road instead of playing within the confines of their own stadium gives the other team an advantage. Last season, Pitt packed Heinz Field exactly one time: in Week 2 against Penn State. That game drew a crowd of 69,000 plus. The highest attended home game for Pitt outside of that game was 50,000 on opening day against Villanova. That Penn State game was just a different animal. It was the renewal of an age old rivalry. Pitt fans hate Penn State. Penn State fans hate Pitt. It’s a true “get-up” game.
But outside of the shift in location, the teams are vastly different. The Nittany Lions dropped to 1-1 on the season this time last year, and would eventually be 2-2 two weeks later after getting throttled by Michigan. It appeared to be another season that James Franklin and his coaching staff would have to chalk up post game press conferences with quotes of “tremendous respect” for whomever he was coaching against. It was one where fans would say the team is one year away from competing at a high level. Contrary to what we believed at the time, we all know how the season ended. Wild last week of the season, Big Ten title game, shootout against USC in the Rose Bowl, blah, blah, blah. You know the narrative by now. What we take from last season, and the subsequent loss to Pitt in Week 2, is that Penn State was a different team a mere five weeks after losing to Pitt, let alone in 2017.
The Panthers have a completely new look to them in 2017 as well. 2016 starting quarterback Nathan Peterman is now the backup for the Buffalo Bills and starting running back James Connor is the handcuff to Steelers’ running back Le’Veon Bell. Those two players alone contributed 260 of Pitt’s 432 offensive yards. They also added four combined touchdowns on the day. That’s a huge gap in the Pitt offense that I’m not quite sure they’ve filled yet.
Stepping in to replace Peterman is Senior Max Browne, who threw for 140 yards and touchdown in Week 1 against Youngstown State. Browne has see little action in his time at Pitt, primarily in the backup’s role.
The running back situation will less difficult to solve, as Pitt used three pirmary rushers to pick up the lost slack form Connor. The leading candidate was Junior Qadree Ollison, who touched the ball 22 times out of the backfield for 91 yards and two touchdowns. Ollison isn’t unversed to the starting role, though. In 2015, when Connor was battling cancer, Ollison assumed the starting duties, rushing 212 times for 1121 yards and 11 touchdowns. Pitt couldn’t ask for a much better drop off, if there even is one, from Connor to Ollison. They’ve inserted a starting caliber running back to replace a starting caliber running back. The backup for Ollison will be Darrin Hall, who was number three on the depth chart last season, but was the true backup to Ollison in 2015. He’s carried the ball 100 times over the past two seasons.
The Pitt offense attempted 25 passes per game compared to nearly 42 rushes per game. Head Coach Pat Narduzzi’s run heavy offense won’t come as a surprise this weekend to Penn State. The Wild Dogs will load the box all afternoon in hopes of jamming Ollison at the line, not allowing him to use his speed to get into the second level.
Although the running back position isn’t a question that entirely worries Pat Narduzzi, the offense as a whole might. Last week, against FCS Youngstown State, the Pitt Panthers required overtime to defeat the Penguins at home. The final score was 28-21, and the Panthers snuck out with their first victory of the season, but the offense stalled in the second half, scoring exactly zero points in the final 30 minutes of regulation. The Youngstown offense marched to the Pitt 13 yard line during their overtime period before quarterback Hunter Wells threw an interception in the back of the endzone to cap off an all too scary win for the Panthers. Granted, the Youngstown team did finish 12-4 last season at the FCS level, making their way to the FCS championship game, eventually falling to James Madison 28-14. But as good as Youngstown State was in 2016, this near defeat at the hands of an FCS team will not bode well with Pitt fans and boosters alike.
Despite finishing the season 8-5, and knocking off both Penn State and Clemson last season, the Panthers aren’t without flaw. The team was the tenth highest scoring offense in the country last season, averging 41 points per game. But that was a starting quarterback and running back ago. Can the offense duplicate it’s success in 2017? And what do we make of a Pitt defense that yielded 35 points per game, good for 106th best in the country, or vice versa, the 22nd most points allowed. The defense allowed 61 to Syracuse, 42 to Clemson, 51 to Miami, and 45 to Oklahoma State. Those are some terrifying numbers to digest as a Pitt fan. There’s a reason the team was 8-5 and not closer to a 10 win team.
While the offense is still pretty prolific, the defense is serious cause for concern against a Penn State offense that has gotten exponentially better since this game one year ago. I’d expect to see Pitt put up some points early, but the Panthers simply aren’t a match for the more talented Nittany Lions. I’m going to take the Nittany Lions, even with a 18.5 point spread, with the points, and say Penn State wins by three scores.
Final Score: 44-20 Penn State
Mandatory Credit: Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports