By: David Abruzzese and Ethan Kasales
No. 4 Penn State will welcome a much different team to Beaver Stadium Saturday afternoon than the one it saw last fall in Pittsburgh. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on ABC.
The Nittany Lions haven’t defeated the Panthers this century, but in the first home game against the in-state foes since 1999, James Franklin’s team has the opportunity to avenge last year’s heartbreaker at Heinz Field.
In their season opener last weekend, the Panthers (1-0) went to overtime with FCS Youngstown State, prevailing 28-21 in uninspiring fashion.
Despite knocking off the eventual national champions in Clemson in 2016, Pitt gave up at least 31 points in 10 of its 13 contests, including a Pinstripe Bowl loss to Northwestern.
With Nathan Peterman off to the Buffalo Bills of the NFL, former blue-chip recruit Max Browne takes the reigns for a Pitt offense struggling to find an identity thus far in the season — especially after an explosive 2016 under coordinator Matt Canada, who bolted to LSU. Browne, who began his career at USC, was unseated by Sam Darnold last season before opting to transfer for his final season of eligibility after Darnold established himself.
One game into the 2017 season, Browne has 140 yards and a touchdown. His biggest weapon is wide receiver Quadree Henderson, and new offensive coordinator Shawn Watson will try and use him in every possible capacity. Henderson will line up alongside Jester Weah in Pitt’s pro-style offense, but will be utilized in the sweep game as a running back. Henderson tallied 631 yards on 60 carries with five touchdowns last season as a runner, and though he was quiet on the ground against Youngstown St., expect that to change against the Nittany Lions.
Pitt’s offensive line is headed by Rochester, Ny native and redshirt senior Alex Officer, who steadies the running game left guard. He’s paving alleyways for runningback Qadree Ollison, who played second fiddle to James Conner in 2016. With Conner off to the NFL, it’s Ollison’s spot now — and with two touchdowns in the opener, it appears he’s taking advantage of it.
The Panthers need to strike early and often on Saturday if they want to counteract Penn State’s stout defensive unit.
Without star junior safety Jordan Whitehead in the lineup, who’s serving a three-game suspension, defensive coordinator Josh Conklin’s bunch allowed 311 passing yards to the Penguins. In fact, Youngstown State averaged a crazy 7.2 yards per play against a meager Pitt defense.
The secondary is a mix of veterans and young talent, with backup free safety Bricen Garner making the first interception of the season. Starting strong safety Dennis Briggs and outside linebacker Oluwaseun Idowu lead the defense with seven total tackles apiece. Stud sophomore corner Damar Hamlin saw action in only three games last fall and was held out the entire spring due to injury.
Former Penn State defensive tackle Kam Carter, who was dismissed from the program before making an appearance on Netflix’s “Last Chance U,” is listed with the third-string defense on Pitt’s depth chart. Behind Hamlin, redshirt freshman Keyshon Camp was the highest-ranked signee in Pitt’s 2016 recruiting class. The massive defensive tackle from Lakeland, Fla., should create problems in the backfield Saturday.