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Previewing The Enemy: Pitt Panthers

No. 13 Penn State football (2-0) will host Pitt (1-1) for the final time in their current four-game series on Saturday afternoon.

The Nittany Lions and Panthers have squared off 99 times before, and this game will be the last meeting between the sides for the foreseeable future. More importantly, Penn State will try to wrap up conference play and enter its first bye week of the 2019 season with a perfect 3-0 record.

Penn State’s noisy neighbors to the West are coming off a 20-10 victory over Ohio after dropping its season opener against Virginia by a final score of 30-14.

The Team

Head coach Pat Narduzzi is two games into his fifth season at the helm of Pitt’s football program. He’s a charismatic leader of a program that won its division before getting stomped on by eventual national champion Clemson in the ACC championship game.

Saying Narduzzi doesn’t like Penn State is like saying KJ Hamler is kind of fast. The head coach has fired some shots at the Nittany Lions this week — including a direct response to James Franklin changing his team’s signals after backup safety John Petrishen’s transfer.

Narduzzi is 29-25 in four-plus seasons as Pitt’s head coach. He only failed to qualify for a bowl game once in his first four years in charge of the Panthers, but his three bowl appearances have all ended in defeats.

Offense

The Panthers have a returning starting quarterback in Kenny Pickett, but his offense has undergone a bit of a shift in focus because of new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple.

Last season, Pitt’s offense relied heavily on its run game — particularly through running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. However, both of those players are gone, and that, combined with Whipple’s pass-heavy philosophy, has produced a near complete change in the way Pitt moves the ball.

Pickett has some weapons to work with — most notably Maurice Ffrench — but he has some issues with accuracy and decision-making. The junior from Oakhurst, New Jersey has struggled to find receivers via the deep ball through two games, and his pair of interceptions against Virginia was the result of some baffling decisions. He also tends to step up in the pocket and scramble to his right before firing at a receiver who’s 5-10 yards downfield. Pickett can do some damage with his legs, but for the most part, he’ll use his arm against the Nittany Lions.

Elsewhere, Ffrench is a dynamic, KJ Hamler-esque talent who Penn State needs to keep an eye out for all game. Whipple definitely likes to run drag concepts, slants, and screens with Ffrench as the primary target, and he can do some serious damage with the ball in his hands thanks to his speed.

Beyond him, Pitt has Nakia Griffin-Stewart — a grad transfer from Rutgers — to throw the ball to at tight end. Taysir Mack is a big body at wide receiver who’s hauled in nine passes for 90 yards so far this year. Aaron Matthews and Tre Tipton round out the Panthers’ experienced group of pass-catchers.

Junior AJ Davis and redshirt sophomore Todd Sibley head up Pitt’s running back room, but they have combined for just 140 yards on 31 carries this year. In contrast, Pickett has thrown 78 passes through two games this year. Expect to see the Panthers run plenty of passing plays against Brent Pry’s defense on Saturday afternoon.

Pitt really got in trouble in its 30-14 defeat against Virginia because of poor offensive line play. If the front five can protect Pickett as it did against Ohio, Pickett will have every opportunity to move the ball and put up big numbers against Penn State.

Defense & Special Teams

Pitt’s defense runs a 4-3 base scheme, and the strength of the unit is in the secondary. The Panthers’ pass defenders are a physical bunch of players who play well against both the pass and run.

Pitt’s starting cornerbacks — Dane Jackson, Damarri Mathis, and Jason Pinnock — are all extremely physical in man-to-man coverage, but they can sometimes get caught out and flagged for pass interference. All three of the Panthers’ corners are excellent tacklers, too, so the likes of KJ Hamler, Jahan Dotson, and Justin Shorter will have to manage that physicality throughout Saturday’s game.

At safety, Paris Ford and Damar Hamlin — Pitt’s leading tackler with 10 stops so far this year — are just as physical, and they’ve done a nice job against the run in particular. Pitt’s front seven isn’t all that formidable, and both safeties do a great job of smothering opposing ball-carriers if they get to the second level.

Meanwhile, the Panthers’ linebacker unit features a new starter in the form of graduate transfer Kylan Johnson. Johnson has made seven tackles in his first two games for Pitt after beginning his college football career at Florida, where he made 33 appearances in three seasons as a Gator.

The front seven, which lost starting defensive tackles Keyshon Camp and Shane Roy to injury and graduation, respectively, has struggled a bit against the run. However, it did a nice job against Virginia dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins at times, but even the defense’s best blitz calls got burned in that 30-14 defeat.

If Penn State can keep Pitt’s defense on the field for a long time, the run game should open up — just as it did late for the Cavaliers. Penn State’s running game has struggled a bit through two games, so this weekend will provide the running backs with a chance to break out against an average-at-best front seven.

Pitt returns both its starting kicker and punter and Maurice Ffrench is more than capable of making huge plays in the kick and punt return games.

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About the Author

Mikey Mandarino

Mikey is a senior majoring in journalism and Onward State's Sports Editor. He grew up in Bedminster, NJ and is way too obnoxious about all the best things his home state has to offer. Mikey loves to play golf, but he sucks at it because golf is hard. If you're dying to see more hockey/golf content on your timeline, you can follow Mikey on Twitter @mikey_mandarino. Send all hate mail, death threats, and your vote for the best chicken parm in State College to [email protected]

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