For the second consecutive year, the Pitt Panthers will play the Penn State Nittany Lions, something that hasn’t happened since 1999-2000 when their storied rivalry came to an end. Although this version (Dubbed the ‘Keystone Classic) of the rivalry will expire after the 2019 season (and may renew in 2026) the intensity of this game is a reminder of the series that began in in 1893. This year’s game will mark the 98th time that both teams have played each other with Saturday’s game being held at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania.
The Panthers have won each of the past two encounters, 42-39 last season and 12-0 in 2000. Pitt will be visiting Beaver Stadium for the first time in 18 years. The Panthers have lost each of their last four games at Penn State (1990, 1992, 1997, 1999) and are just 6-17 on the road against the Nittany Lions. Pitt’s last win in State College, a 14-7 decision in 1988, was spurred by the late Curtis Bray, who had a sack for a safety and key interception as a freshman linebacker. A victory at Penn State would give the Panthers three consecutive wins in the series, something they have not achieved since 1944-46. Pitt has lost each of its last four games in Beaver Stadium (1990, 1992, 1997, 1999). the Nittany Lions lead the all-time series, 50-43-4.
Both Pitt and Penn State played Football Championship Series (FCS) Subdivision teams and won, but the difference in the both teams margins of victory is polarizing: Penn State beat Akron handily in a 52-0 blowout, while the Panthers struggled to beat Youngstown State 28-21 (OT) in which they led 21-0 in the first half.
“Just to give you a little review of just last week and really what I saw on tape is what I saw during the game, felt during the game. It was a feeling thing that I think sometimes you have.” Said Pitt Head Coach Pat Narduzzi at his weekly news conference “But I would say, you know, with week 1 being over, a lot of learning for our kids, what they did, what they could have done better.”
Narduzzi also referenced the new Pitt players who faced off against Youngstown State: “There was a lot of guys playing in their first game, starting in their first game, playing for the first time in a year with Hendrix and a Zeise, for example, or even a Max Browne, for example, been a long time since they’d been in a game situation. As many scrimmages as you have, there’s nothing like game experience. “
In his first game as Pitt quarterback, Browne passed for 140 yards (17-24) and his TD pass to WR Jester Weah in OT was the game-winner. The graduate-transfer from USC wasn’t asked to pass much, but at times he had his challenges which led to being sacked 3 times, especially in critical moments.
“For a coach, I told you it’s almost a relief to get the first week over because now you know what you’re dealing with.” Said Narduzzi “You really don’t know until you have a true game to see how you match up against a good football team, and then even a better one obviously this weekend. But you kind of know what to fix now. So we talked to the coaches, it’s kind of like until you go to the doctor and find out what’s wrong with you, you can’t give the patients the right medicine.”
Here’s what Narduzzi had to say about that ‘better’ team, the Nittany Lions “And then obviously Penn State, big week this week. Great football team. I think from our estimates, about 16 returning starters playing a lot of football. You know, a really good football team, ranked 6th in the country, probably go up higher this week after the blowout win over Akron. Looked dominant in all phases of the game. Akron couldn’t protect the quarterback. Their front four, Coach Pry has got the front four going big time.”
Narduzzi continued: “Coach Moorhead and the offense, again, explosive. Scored a lot of points like they did a year ago, which got them to the Rose Bowl. Very well-coached on both sides of the ball, but offensively they do what they do. Obviously, Trace is a heck of a quarterback and Barkley is a heck of a tailback, so you’ve got two guys in the backfield that you must stop.”
In the victory against Akron, QB Trace McSorley passed for 280 yards and 2 scores, while Heisman Hopeful RB Saquon Barkley rushed for 172 yards and 2 scores. He also caught 3 passes for 54 yards and even returned a kick for 20 yards. Quadree Henderson he’s not, but Barkley finished the day with 246 all-purpose yards.
“He’s stronger, I think. He’s fast. He does it all.” Said Narduzzi regarding Barkley “I mean, he can do it all. I’m sure we’re going to see some wheel routes. I don’t know if you guys know what a wheel route is, but that wheel route, we saw a couple the other day. But we’ll have that ironed out in every different possible formation you can see.”
When asked if this game is either based on managing Pitt’s emotion to keep it more even or is it rising it to a level against the opposition, Narduzzi replied “I think it’s a little bit of both. I don’t think you can get up too early. We certainly don’t want to get fired upon Tuesday. It’s time to get fired up on a Saturday when we arrive at the stadium. But I think you’ve got the composure and you worry about yourselves.”
The Panthers strength in the win vs. Youngstown State was the running game which rushed for 208 yards and 3 scores. Quadree Ollison led the way with 91 yards and 2 scores and freshman AJ Davis had the other score with a 1-yard plunge, which was his first collegiate touchdown. “We’d like to get one other guy involved back there as soon as possible.” Said Narduzzi “I thought AJ did a great job, came in and got a touchdown, and I was scared to death we put him in on 4th and 1, and it’s like, we’re putting the ball in a freshman’s hand on 4th and 1, but AJ did a heck of a job just like we thought he did in camp, but big game, first game, I was impressed with him. But we’ll see. Again, we’re going to play the guy that’s hot.”
As for Penn State, here’s what head coach James Franklin had to say about Saturday’s game: “Looking at Pittsburgh, Coach Narduzzi does a really good job and we have a lot of respect for him and their program. They present a very challenging offense. Probably more similar to a Stanford or Michigan State style of offense.
Franklin continued: “Special teams is the area I think that they do probably their best job. I think their special team’s coordinator does a tremendous job. Quadree Henderson, in my opinion, is the issue in the game. He’s the guy you go into the game and you say who’s the guy that can be a game changer or a game wrecker, however, you want to describe it. He’s that guy. So we have to have a plan for him to try to limit the impact that he’ll have in this game.” Henderson had 137 combined return yards in the win vs. Youngstown State. He also had 77 yards rushing.
When asked if the Panthers are a different team that beat Penn State last year, Franklin replied “No, I think Pat’s running a program where he has systems that he believes in, and he’s going to hire coordinators to come in and run those systems. Obviously, there are some tweaks, but when you watch, you watch the first two, maybe the first three drives against Youngstown State and it looks like the same stuff that they ran last year.”
When asked about the importance of Saturday’s game: “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 that we play this Saturday. Last week our Super Bowl was Akron. So I think when I say these things, people act like I’m trying to say that the Pitt game is not a big game. It’s a huge game. It is the most important game that we have on our schedule. As much as people want to tell me how we should be approaching it, that’s how we will always approach it. It is a very important game for us because it’s the one we play Saturday.”
Notes: Narduzzi said that LB Quintin Wirginis is out for the season: “So after a suspension, we have an injury, so he’s a guy that really is lost for the year. Disappointing, but something we deal with.” Penn State RB Barkley was named Rose Bowl Player of the Week for his performance vs. Akron
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