Breaking Down Penn State’s Anticipated Reunion With Pitt
By: David Abruzzese and Ethan Kasales
Penn State’s long-awaited rematch with in-state foe Pitt is finally upon us. Saturday’s noon kick from Heinz Field is not just 16 years in the making, it’s a chance to write the next chapter in a rivalry ready for a reboot. Fans who weren’t able to snag a coveted ticket can tune in on ESPN.
There are a few standouts to keep an eye out for on Pitt’s offense, but none more prominent than junior running back James Conner, who overcame Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the offseason to make a triumphant return to the team. The 2014 ACC Player of the Year posted 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns during a dominant sophomore campaign, but suffered a torn ACL that sidelined him for the entire 2015 season. Aside from Ezekiel Elliot of Ohio State last year, Conner is likely the most difficult runner the Lions will have faced over the last two years.
Under center is redshirt senior Nathan Peterman, who transferred to the Panthers prior to last fall after graduating from Tennessee. The 6-foot-2 and 225-pounder threw for 2,287 yards, 20 touchdowns, and eight interceptions while completing 61.7 percent of his passes in 2015. But against the Lions, his arm won’t be the only threat. Peterman’s an effective runner who figures to keep the Lions on their toes defensively as they attempt to balance Pitt on the ground.
The Panthers lose top receivers Tyler Boyd (second round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals) and J.P. Holtz, leaving redshirt senior Dontez Ford as the team’s top returning receiver. He won’t match Boyd’s production, but expect him to match up well against cornerbacks Grant Haley and Christian Campbell. With seven sacks for Penn State’s defensive front last game, the onus will be on redshirt junior guard Alex Officer to man the fort and keep the Penn State pass rush at bay.
Penn State Defense
Plenty of fanfare surrounded the team’s seven sack output, but the pressure will be focused squarely on the front seven against the run. The Panthers will give Conner the ball early and often, and given Kent State’s ability to move the ball on the Lions, that’s a problem. Jason Cabinda and Nyeem Wartman-White will be expected to produce, and with Evan Schwan potentially sidelined for Saturday’s contest, Shareef Miller and Ryan Buchholz will be counted upon to provide some assistance up front along with Garrett Sickels.
Thankfully Tyler Boyd is off to the NFL, but the secondary will still have its hands full when the ball isn’t in Conner’s hands. Jester Weah poses a legitimate deep threat, while all-around star sophomore Jordan Whitehead — a one-time target of the Nittany Lions — is expected to see snaps on offense along with his duties as the team’s deep safety.
Overall, the Lions match up well with the Panthers, but it all depends on how much damage James Conner does. If the Lions can keep him contained, the game figures to tilt in their favor. If not, it’ll be a much different story when the final whistle blows.
The Panthers were led by Jordan Whitehead on defense last year, as the then-true freshman racked up a team-high 110 tackles as a starting safety, solidifying himself among the nation’s top young athletes. Whitehead has a natural nose for the football, sniffing out 75 solo tackles in his first season on campus. James Franklin noted Wednesday that the Nittany Lions expect Whitehead to line up on offense as well, giving Brent Pry something wholly different than what Pitt put on tape in week one.
Senior middle linebacker Matt Galambos is another Panther to keep an eye on Saturday, as the Collingdale, Pa., native will be the one to call the shots for defensive coordinator Josh Conklin. Redshirt senior Ejuan Price, fresh off a breakout 2015 that saw the undersized defensive end put up a team-leading 11.5 sacks, will be an interesting matchup for Penn State’s offensive tackles in either Brendan Mahon or Andrew Nelson.
Penn State Offense
It’s pretty safe to say that Joe Moorhead didn’t show much of his new vaunted offense against Kent State, as the Nittany Lions were pretty bland in their formations and personnel packages in order to keep Pitt waiting. Trace McSorley proved his two years as Christian Hackenberg’s backup were taken advantage of in terms of getting himself ready to lead on his own, as the redshirt sophomore was effective at moving the chains on most drives in his debut.
Getting Saquon Barkley heavily involved in the game plan from the start will hopefully create some confidence, as there’s not much opposing defenses can do when Barkley has even a split second to analyze the gap and take off. If Penn State’s offensive line can piece together a similar outing to its one-sack performance in week one, the Nittany Lions will have a tremendous weight off their shoulders and should be able to open things up in the passing game.
Expect junior tight end Mike Gesicki to be utilized often as a mismatch over the middle against Pitt’s back seven, while the backup running backs in Andre Robinson, Mark Allen, and Pittsburgh native Miles Sanders should garner more touches to mix things up.