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Breaking down the matchup between Penn State and Pitt

Penn State and Pitt will clash for the first time in 16 years Saturday when the two gather at Heinz Field to restore their old rivalry. ACC reporter Matt Fortuna and Big Ten reporter Josh Moyer break down the matchup between the Nittany Lions and the Panthers.

How to beat Penn State: Stop Saquon Barkley. Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi certainly isn’t taking the superstar sophomore for granted. He said on Monday that Barkley “is maybe the best tailback in the country.” He’s as elusive as any Penn State back in at least the past decade, and he was a priority last week for Kent State’s defense. Trace McSorley showed poise as a dual-threat quarterback in the opener, but he also underthrew several receivers on the deeper passes. If Pitt loads the box, McSorley might not have the arm to make the defense pay. Can Penn State adjust? -- Moyer

How to beat Pitt: Perhaps fittingly for an old-school rivalry, Pitt’s game plan should be very similar to Penn State’s: The Panthers want to run the ball. They are absolutely loaded in the backfield, with a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in James Conner and Qadree Ollison, who also happen to run behind arguably the best offensive line in the ACC. Penn State should try to force Pitt to pass as much as possible. Nate Peterman may be a quality quarterback, but like the two men before him under center at Pitt, he often relied way too much on Tyler Boyd last season. Now? The Panthers are still searching for answers at receiver, although Scott Orndoff had a nice effort in the opener (five catches, 68 yards). -- Fortuna

How Penn State beats you: Defense, defense, defense. Last season, when Penn State allowed more than 300 yards of offense, it went just 1-6. When it held opponents to less than 300 yards, it was 6-0. The Nittany Lions weren’t designed to score a lot of points last season and, even with an improved offense and new coordinator in Joe Moorhead, they can’t expect to win in a shootout. The defense still has to do some heavy lifting here. Luckily for PSU, the secondary is incredibly deep and underrated, the linebackers are thin depth-wise but remain extremely talented and the defensive line came away with six of the team’s seven sacks last week. The one caveat here: The line was inconsistent and needs to do a better job stuffing the running lanes. That’ll be key. -- Moyer

How Pitt beats you: We’ve already gone over the Panthers’ ground game, which they hope is their biggest edge physically late in tight games. But we can’t overlook what should again be a much improved pass-rush, especially against Penn State, whose biggest Achilles heel in light of all those past scholarship reductions is its offensive line. Narduzzi had the front seven playing with a new edge last season, as Pitt eclipsed the previous year’s sack total midway through the season. Pitt may have faced FCS Villanova in its opener, but it did tally six sacks, including 1.5 from Ejuan Price, who led the ACC in sacks per game a year ago. The status of fellow end Dewayne Hendrix remains unclear, but if he’s a go, that could mean big things for the Panthers. -- Fortuna

Penn State’s X-factor: Barkley. Sure, we already mentioned Barkley as one of the keys to this game. But it’d be disingenuous to put anyone else here. Barkley is a surprise waiting to happen and, even if a crowd of defenders surrounds him, there’s no guarantee that’ll stop him. James Franklin said before that Barkley could return kicks at some points, so PSU will try to get the ball into his hands as much as possible. If he goes into Beast Mode, there’s really not much you can do. -- Moyer

Pitt’s X-factor: Jordan Whitehead. We haven’t gotten to the reigning ACC rookie of the year yet, but the safety has made quite an impression in a short period of time in the Steel City. He had 109 tackles last season and was a force all over the field -- even taking some snaps on offense late last season as a running back and pass-catcher. I wouldn’t bet against the Pitt staff having a few tricks up its sleeve when it comes to using Whitehead in this rivalry game. -- Fortuna

Predictions:

Moyer: Pitt 24-20. The Panthers have the advantage in the trenches, and their offensive linemen -- on average -- weigh 22 more pounds than the linemen of Penn State's last opponent, Kent State. That could lead to more big plays for Pitt. And, quite frankly, I think Pitt is "up" for this game more than Penn State.

Fortuna: Pitt 24-17. Don’t be surprised if the Panthers come out a little tight. Believe it or not, that’s often the case when coaches make certain games out to be bigger than others, as Pitt did here in shutting down player interviews for the week. That said, the Panthers have the biggest edge where it matters most, in the trenches, and they will wear Penn State out in the second half.