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Breaking down Pitt-Oklahoma State

Pitt has found ways to work receiver Quadree Henderson into its running game, while OK State needs junior wideout James Washington up to full speed. Getty Images

Pitt is coming off the high of beating rival Penn State. Oklahoma State is coming off the low of losing on a final play that wasn’t even legally supposed to happen. How will each respond? ACC reporter Matt Fortuna and Big 12 reporter Mitch Sherman break down the Saturday matchup (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN) in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

How to beat Pitt: The safest play for a defense is probably to load the box and force Pitt to pass. In particular, try to make the Panthers beat you deep. They have arguably the best offensive line in the ACC, and they have a plethora of all-league-caliber backs. But while Nate Peterman has been nothing if not efficient -- he completed 11 of 15 passes against Penn State and even ran for 52 yards himself -- the Pitt quarterback threw for just 91 yards. Only three people made catches against PSU, and only one of them was a wide receiver, as Pitt continues to search for other reliable passing-game options after Tyler Boyd's departure for the NFL. You don’t want James Conner and Qadree Ollison gaining momentum and burning time off the clock by running down your throats. Pitt is a team that is built on both lines of scrimmages to win the fourth quarter, and neutralizing that advantage is your best bet at beating the Panthers. -- Fortuna

How to beat Oklahoma State: Shut down the running game, a facet of the game at which Pitt excels. Oklahoma State started 10-0 last season with a running attack that topped 200 yards just twice. It overcame its weakness. Yet in its final three contests against improved competition, the Cowboys averaged 67.3 yards on the ground -- and went 0-3. The formula has continued this fall. Never mind the insane Week 2 ending in Stillwater that got two officiating crews suspended; if Oklahoma State had taken care of business earlier -- and averaged more than 1.9 yards per rushing attempt on 26 carries -- it would have handled the Chippewas. The Cowboys returned an experienced offensive line and added Barry Sanders to the backfield in addition to talented freshman Justice Hill. Inexplicably, though, no back has carried the football more than 12 times or gained more than 61 yards through two games. You can’t run the football effectively if you don’t commit to it. -- Sherman

How Pitt beats you: We know Pitt can run the ball, but Josh Conklin’s defense has been great at creating the game-wrecking play through two weeks this season. The Panthers have forced six turnovers, including four in the three-point win over PSU. Three of those takeaways came via bone-jarring hits that caused fumbles. Their four fumble recoveries on the season are tied with Florida State for tops in the ACC. Their 10 sacks are tied with Miami for tops in the nation. The defense grew up fast last season under Pat Narduzzi and a new coaching staff and was much better at creating pressure. We’ve seen more of the same so far this season. -- Fortuna

How Oklahoma State beats you: By creating havoc -- turnovers, to be specific. The Cowboys, in their 10-0 start a year ago, forced 24 turnovers and sat at plus-12 in turnover margin. The Pokes are plus-57 on turnovers since the start of the 2010 season, a stretch that includes four 10-win seasons. This year, despite the loss last week, they’ve already forced six turnovers and lost just two. Last season, in fact, Oklahoma State ranked in the top 10 nationally in turnovers gained, defensive touchdowns and sacks. For defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer's units, disruptive play is a hallmark, dating back to his time as defensive-backs coach at Duke (2004-06) and defensive-line coach at Georgia Tech (2002-03). -- Sherman

Pitt’s X factor: WR Quadree Henderson. The sophomore was that lone wide receiver to catch a pass for Pitt this past Saturday, grabbing three balls for 47 yards and a touchdown, this after catching four passes for 35 yards in the opener. While those numbers don’t exactly jump off the page, Pitt got him involved in the running game against Penn State as well, as Henderson had four carries for 58 yards. That versatility should keep defenses honest, and it just might be able to open some more plays for Pitt vertically. -- Fortuna

Oklahoma State’s X factor: WR James Washington. The most accomplished returning wideout in the Big 12, Washington has yet to fully engage in 2016. The speedy Texan caught five balls for 34 yards against Southeastern Louisiana, understandably low in a 61-7 victory, but his production only inched up to five catches for 69 yards and one score last week in a tight game. Washington caught 16 touchdowns in his first two seasons. He is a weapon for quarterback Mason Rudolph. -- Sherman

Predictions:

Fortuna: Emotional responses are very tricky to predict in this one, but external factors aside, I like the advantages Pitt has where it matters most, in the trenches. Those characteristics carry over to road games much better than big skill plays do, so I’ll take Pitt in a close one, 27-21.

Sherman: If before the season, Oklahoma State coaches and players viewed their first two games as simply a tuneup, bad idea. Regardless, it's basically now or never for the Cowboys. I'm looking for more focus, a better commitment to the running game and just enough defense to hold off the Panthers. Oklahoma State 31, Pitt 27