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Pitt at Penn State Preview: Can Nittany Lions return the favor from 2016?

Penn State hosts Pitt for first time in 18 years, but can it avenge an early season loss from last year or will Narduzzi’s bunch do it again to PSU?

When:Sat. Sept. 9; 3:30pm ET
Where:University Park, Pa.; Beaver Stadium (106,572)
TV:ABC
All-Time Series: PSU leads 50-43-4
Last Meeting: Pitt won, 42-39 (2016)
Line: Penn State (-21)

This was a series that held major weight in college football for a long time. But, a huge hiatus made many around the country forget about its importance. That’s all back in the 2017 version of the Keystone State clash, and 2016 has everything to do with it.

Pitt took down Penn State in a bit of a stunner early on in 2016, but the Nittany Lions went on to win the Big Ten title and go to the Rose Bowl. Now the Nittany Lions come in to this game against the Panthers hoping for a measure of revenge, but also to show they belong on top of the Big Ten as well.

A 52-0 win over Akron in Week 1 helped, meanwhile the visiting Panthers eeked out a 28-21 decision over FCS opponent, Youngstown State.

This matchup appears to be much different in terms of where the Nittany Lions and Panthers are as programs in 2017. Will that matter at all though? Let’s take a look inside the contest

1 Burning Question: Which coach has the right tact about the ‘rivalry’?

One thing is clear, Penn State head coach James Franklin and Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi approach this game and its significance in a very different fashion.

Narduzzi is embracing this game as a big rivalry for his team and saying it publicly, while Franklin is only putting emphasis on it because it is the game on the schedule this week. You literally can’t get more divergent in thought processes and attitudes towards this game.

Here’s how Narduzzi put it this week:

“I know it’s a rivalry game for us. Some people think it’s a rivalry game, some people don’t. It doesn’t matter what they think, it just matters what we think. If we think it is, then it is for us and it doesn’t have to be for them. Everybody has different rivalries.”

Let’s just say he isn’t one to shy away from speaking his mind. Meanwhile, Franklin has danced around embracing any rivalry talk according to that same Penn Live article.

“I understand the significance of this game and the importance of this game, but I’m also a huge believer that this is the most important game on our schedule because it’s the one this week,” Franklin said. “This week, the Pitt game is the most important game in the universe. I don’t want people to take what I’m saying the wrong way. This is the Super Bowl for us, because it’s the game we play Saturday.”

Franklin seems to want to downplay talk of a rivalry, and maybe it is part of his “one game at a time” mantra that he’s espoused ever since arriving in Happy Valley, but would it kill him to just embrace the game for what it is and say it?

Is anyone buying this schtick anymore? Honest question.

Should Pitt win in Happy Valley, would that be enough for Franklin to believe this game takes on some more importance going forward? Or will Narduzzi’s willingness to embrace the rivalry talk fall on deaf ears in year two?

Either way, we’re about to find out some major answers for both programs.

2 Key Stats:

200: Both Penn State and Pitt rushed for over 200 yards on the ground in Week 1 wins.

Could it be that the first team to 200 yards rushing as a team wins in Happy Valley? It very well could, espcially given Penn State’s stud of a running back in Saquon Barkley and Pitt’s reliance on the run game while it develops something at running back. The easy money is on Penn State having the advantage, especially on defense, as they gave up just 73 yards to Akron. Meanwhile, Pitt let Youngstown State go for over 100 yards on just 26 carries as a team.

2: That is the number of wins Pitt had last season over top 5 opponents.

Why should 2016 matter given where these two teams stand in 2017? Well, this number matters because it illustrates that you can’t take Pitt lightly if you are Penn State. While some in the fanbase see last season’s loss to the Panthers as a fluke, that team went on to own wins over eventual national champion, Clemson, and the eventual No. 5 team in the country Penn State. Sure, these teams are different, but Pat Narduzzi’s bunch may be closer to nationally competitive than they showed in the opener against Youngstown State.

3 Players to Watch:

Max Browne, QB (Pitt):  Pitt is entering a critical season for head coach Pat Narduzzi and the offense is now in the hands of former USC quarterback Max Browne. He transferred this offseason as a graduate transfer and if Pitt wants to make strides to become a true contender, he’s got to be the answer. There are plenty of questions as to whether that is really the case after Week 1. I mean, he only had 140 yards and a touchdown. The good news is he completed 70 percent of his passes, now let’s see if the offense, and Browne, can grow together against a really good FBS defense.

Quadree Henderson, WR (Pitt): If you want to know who is winning this game on Saturday, may we suggest finding what Henderson is doing on the stat sheet. He’s not only one of the most dangerous return men in CFB, Henderson is as dangerous as they come with the ball in his hands. Case in point last week — Henderson touched the ball 10 times on offense and nine of them came as a running play. He put up 77 yards rushing and had one catch as well. The goal has been more touches as a receiver, but if Penn State wants to win, the defense and special teams have to contain Henderson.

Mike Gesicki, TE (Penn State): Almost all that was said about Henderson could apply to Mike Gesicki and Penn State’s chances of winning this game. Everyone knows that stopping Saquon Barkley is priority No. 1, but what makes that focus deadly is the McSorely to Gesicki combination in the pass game. He’s a perfect foil for the play-action pass game due to his ability to get open in space and be a physical receiver as well. If Penn State is winning, Gesicki’s name is likely at or near the top of the stat sheet as well.

Prediction:

What everyone seems to be missing heading in to this game is the disparity that exists between Penn State and Pitt’s rushing attacks. With a rebuilding ground game for Pat Narduzzi’s Panthers, Penn State should be able to take full advantage on defense as well as offensively. Saquon Barkley may not be as efficient as he was last weekend, but he’ll get in the end zone a few times and seal up this victory early in the third quarter.

Penn State 49, Pitt 17

 

*all stats are from CFBstats.com unless otherwise noted. 

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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