Penn State and Pittsburgh renew their in-state rivalry this weekend in a nationally televised primetime showdown at Heinz Field in the Steel City on Saturday night. Bragging rights are always on the line, even if these two programs try to sell fans on the idea they are not playing this game up just a bit more than they would any other game on the non-conference schedule.
Penn State had a bit of a wake-up call last week that should help set the tone in practices this week, while Pittsburgh looks to see if they’ll be able to emulate some of the things that worked for Appalachian State as the Panthers look to work the clock and keep Trace McSorley off the field.
Penn State at Pitt
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 8 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Penn State -9.0
Three Things to Watch
1. Will Penn State’s offense start fast?
In the last two meetings against the Panthers, Penn State’s offense took some time to get going. Penn State dug a 28-7 hole two years ago in Heinz Field before nearly pulling off a major comeback. Last season in Beaver Stadium, Penn State capitalized on an early Pitt turnover and a very short field, but the offense only scored one more time before halftime. Last week against Appalachian State, the Nittany Lions scored on the opening drive of the game, thanks in part to a bad penalty by a freshman to give Penn State a free first down after a third-down stop.
Look to see if Trace McSorley and the Nittany Lions have a little more success moving the football and getting points on the board in the primetime setting at Heinz Field.
2. Watch Pitt try to work the clock to their advantage
Although Penn State’s offense took a while to warm up last weekend, Pitt knows the best chance it will have to win is by keeping the Nittany Lions' offense off the field as much as possible. To do this, Pat Narduzzi will likely look to use a similar game plan to last year that operated with short, accurate passing by Kenny Pickett in his second start and running the ball to move at a relative snail’s pace and picking and choosing the right spots to try for a big play against a defense that showed some problems tackling and making stops last week. Pitt may not have the offensive talent to get involved in a shootout with Penn State, but limiting how many scoring opportunities the Nittany Lions have will be essential to Pitt having a shot to win this one.
Last season, it was turnovers that helped force Pitt to have to try changing things up on offense to catch up. If Pitt protects the ball and sustains some drives that result in any points, the Panthers will give the Nittany Lions a battle.
3. Miles Sanders comes home
Sanders is just one Penn State player looking forward to a chance to return home to play in front of friends and family. The Pittsburgh native was one of the top-ranked recruits in the Class of 2016 but Pitt was unable to secure his commitment. Now, Sanders is stepping into the starting role at Penn State after the departure of Saquon Barkley. Last week, he rushed for 91 yards and scored two touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime. He also caught three passes for 20 yards.
Pit counters with senior Qadree Ollison, who rushed for 96 yards against Penn State last season 73 yards on seven carries last weekend. Both schools have solid running back options this season, and each could cause some problems for the opposing defense.
Pittsburgh does have what it takes to give Penn State some fits this weekend, but the Panthers may not have enough to find the big play when they need it the most. Before collapsing in the fourth quarter last week, Penn State’s defense was looking pretty solid. The key will be to shrug off what happened in the fourth quarter and bring the same intensity to the field at the start of this one. Emotions will run high in this game no matter how much players and coaches may downplay the rivalry aspect. But deep down and inside the locker room and on the sidelines, both teams know this one is big. When the lights are shining, Trace McSorley has been tough to beat. He should be ready to put on a solid display once again and lead Penn State to a road win in the national spotlight.
Prediction: Penn State 34, Pittsburgh 24
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.