By Sam Fraley
Penn State hasn’t lost to Pitt at home since 1988.
James Franklin’s is a heavy favorite tomorrow, as the trends for these two programs continue to move in opposite directions.
While Pitt did play in the ACC Championship Game last year, Penn State is the program with a more realistic shot at a conference championship with a better overall roster thanks to solid recruiting and player development. This year’s Penn State team continues to grow and get some new faces going. This week could be a great opportunity for a few players to leave their first serious mark on the 2019 season for the home team.
As for the Panthers? This isn’t a game merely for pride, of course. Pittsburgh has a lot of growing and developing to do themselves after a couple of less-than-inspiring performances coming into Week 3. Can Pitt shock their in-state rival, or will they return to the western part of the state with a 1-3 record as this four-game series revival comes to a close?
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 14 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Penn State -17
The visiting underdogs simply have to find a way to score points, because Penn State is going to score a bunch of points. And for an offense that is finding things difficult to get consistency going with the football, that could pose a significant problem for the Panthers.
Pitt will face a Penn State defense that has been locked in in the early going and could be the true strength of the team. The best strategy for Pitt is to find a way to work the clock and keep the Penn State defense on the field. Buffalo managed to provide a possible blueprint to that idea last week as the Bulls took a lead into halftime in Week 2 in Beaver Stadium. And Pitt managed to slow things down a bit to keep the game within a reasonable distance for much of the game the last time they visited Happy Valley in 2017. A.J. Davis will lead the ground game with Vincent Davis chipping in at times, but Pitt’s chances will largely fall on protecting quarterback Kenny Pickett and giving him time to make a play. Penn State led the Big Ten in sacks last season and is already racking up the sacks this season (Pitt actually has one more sack though) while the Panthers have given up five sacks.
In the first two games of the season, Penn State has run into some serious trouble on third down. Through two weeks, the Nittany Lions rank 128th in the nation in third-down success after converting just three of 17 third-down situations. It’s in these situations where quarterback Sean Clifford can really improve as he is 3-for-8 on his third-down passes against Idaho and Buffalo. Clifford has performed well though with 559 passing yards and six touchdowns without an interception, although the difficulty is about to ramp up.
Clifford has also been showing off his ability to run. He enters Week 3 second on the team in rushing with 108 yards. Penn State’s running game should get going this week with their expected leading rushers. Ricky Slade has just 17 rushing yards so far but that won’t last. Journey Brown has two touchdowns and should continue being a nice fixture in the offense. The Pitt run defense played well last week against Ohio though, limiting the Bobcats to 35 yards on 29 rushing attempts.
Look for Clifford to keep tight end Pat Freiermuth involved, as he leads the team in receptions through two games. And of course, watch out for a big play by speedy KJ Hamler, who is always a threat to score if he gets some open space.
Penn State’s offense may not have been challenged by great opponents yet with matchups against Idaho and Buffalo, but they didn’t score all of those points by accident either. Penn State should have some good touchdown drives in them again this week and they’ll play the kind of defense that will frustrate the Panthers all afternoon. Penn State should be staring at a 3-0 record at the end of this one, giving them the last laugh on Pittsburgh until they meet again, whenever that may be.