Penn State’s Prey 2019: Pittsburgh Panthers
Nittany Lions expect to start their season 2-0 against the Idaho Vandals and the Buffalo Bulls before inviting the cross-state “rival” to town. The Pittsburgh Panthers (7-7, 6-2 ACC) look to be 2-0 themselves when they enter Beaver Stadium on September 14th. That is if they aren’t shocked by a talented Ohio Bobcats team lead by head coach Frank Solich.
This will be the final installation of what has been a lopsided four game series between the two teams and the 100th overall meeting. The Nittany Lions have won the previous two encounters including a 51-6 blowout last year in Pittsburgh. In the last three games, Penn State has outscored Pitt 123-62 and if you don’t include the first half of the 2016 game, the Nittany Lions have routed the Panthers 109 to 34 (10 quarters).
This series originally was thought to hold a lot of stake when it came to recruiting in the state of Pennsylvania, but even when Pitt won in 2016, the Nittany Lions continued to dominate on the trail. If anything, the hype for this series has all but dwindled–even against Pitt’s wishes.
The truth of the matter is having Pittsburgh on their schedule is not strengthening Penn State’s resume–a requirement for any team trying to reach the Playoff. And since the Big Ten plays 9 conference games, there is no rhyme or reason for the massacres to continue with non conference additions of Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and Auburn in years to come. Pitt will forever hold onto their 42-39 victory in 2016–as they should since it will most likely be the last time they beat the Nittany Lions for the foreseeable future.
Defense (27.8 PPG, Returning Starters: 5)
Head coach Pat Narduzzi was hired from Michigan State because of his defensive mind. Now in his fifth year and his second defensive coordinator, he is still looking for more consistency from his defense (his best defense in 4 years has finished 35th).
If the Panthers evade the injury bug throughout the season they could look to finally find such consistency. After a weak recruiting class, there isn’t much behind the Pitt starters. Unfortunately, Pitt has already lost a key contributor in defensive end Rashad Weaver (14 TFLs, 6.5 sacks) for the season due to injury. Weaver very well have could been the Panther’s best player on defense. Still the Pitt defensive line returns both Patrick Jones II (7 TFLs, 3.5 sacks) and Amir Watts (3 TFLs, 1 sack). Also, pay attention to Keystone Camp who did quite well for only playing in 7 games.
The linebacking corps could be troubling for the Panthers with 3 departures (171 tackles, 20.5 TFLs). Elias Reynolds (7 starts, 49 tackles) in the middle and Saleem Brightwell (1 start, 35 tackles, 1 TFL) on the outside will have to take a larger role. Their hope is that the defensive line will be able to keep opposing offensive linemen off of their linebackers.
The strongest part of this defense by far is the defensive backs. Returning safety Damar Hamlin (90 tackles, 4 pass breakups, 2 INTs), and cornerback Dane Jackson (47 tackles, 14 pass breakups, 4 forced fumbles,) lead the way. But the Panthers are also confident in cornerback Jason Pinnock (15 tackles, 6 pass breakups, 2 INTs) and expect safety Paris Ford a former 2017 4 star prospect to finally make an impact.
Losing Weaver for the season is not a good sign to come for a team that does not have room for many more injuries. This defense that could be statistically impressive for the first half of a lot of games, but might run out of steam at the end of close games.
Offense (25.6 PPG, Returning Starters: 6)
Usually, you can expect Pitt teams to struggle after losing four offensive linemen and two 1,000 yard running backs. However, it appears the Panthers are going to open it up more this year under new offensive coordinator, Mark Whipple. The former UMass head coach and mentor to Ben Roethlisberger when he was at the Steelers, looks to open up the Pitt offense.
And this Pitt offense could be more than capable. They return starting quarterback, Kenny Pickett who threw decently (58%, 1,969 yards, 12 TDs, 6 INTs) and does show flashes of mobility (220 yards, 3 TDs). However, Pickett was sacked 33 times last season and will need to get off to a much faster start if the Panthers want to upset Penn State.
Pickett will have help in the passing game, as Pitt returns WR, Maurice Ffrench (10 total TDs, 35 catches, 515 yards) and Taysir Mack (25 catches, 557 yards, 1 TD). Still it will be weird to see a Narduzzi led team coming out and throwing the ball.
When they do run it, they will have to rely on A.J. Davis and Mychale Salahuddin both who have negligible number of carries in games. Don’t be surprised if they try and get the football in V’Lique Carter’s hands. The young playmaker had 137 rushing yards and 2 TDs against Duke last year.
As mentioned, Pitt loses four offensive linemen and only return center Jimmy Morrissey. They did acquire Michigan grad transfer Nolan Ulizio who will have to make an immediate impact.
As mentioned, I think this Pitt defense could keep them in a lot of games this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if this game is relatively close at the end of the half. That being said, the loss of Weaver gives me a lot of confidence that Pitt won’t be able to hang on in the second half. The margin of victory for the Nittany Lions will depend on a) how developed the Penn State offense is and b) if Pickett gives the ball away. I wouldn’t be surprised if Penn State’s running game eventually runs down a Pitt defense that doesn’t have a lot of depth.
Too Early Prediction
Pittsburgh Panthers: 13
Penn State Nittany Lions: 35