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Penn State Nittany Lions vs. Pittsburgh Panthers Preview and Prediction

James Conner

James Conner

For the first time in 16 years, Penn State and Pitt are going to play a football game. For those who grew up counting on these two Pennsylvania college football powers clashing on an annual basis, it may be difficult to comprehend the idea that nearly an entire generation has gone by with no recollection of these two schools playing a game, never mind the game having any deep meaning on a national scale.

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The stakes are certainly not as high as they may have been in the 1980s, but a tremendous amount of pride will be on the line, not to mention bragging rights for a whole year. The build-up has been going on for years and it is finally here. Penn State. Pitt. Let’s do this.

Penn State at Pittsburgh

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 10 at 12 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

Spread: Pitt -6

Three Things to Watch

1. Running Back Excellence: Saquon Barkley and James Conner

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The state of Pennsylvania is home to two of the better running backs around the country, and this weekend they will be on the same field (albeit at different times, obviously). Pittsburgh’s Conner scored two touchdowns in his inspirational return to the field last week against Villanova, and he will be expected to carry the brunt of the offense this week against a Nittany Lions defense that struggled at times against lowly Kent State a week ago.

For Penn State, the offense revolves around its sensational sophomore running back. Barkley rushed for 105 yards and a touchdown last week against a solid Kent State defense. Both Barkley and Conner should play a huge role in how this game plays out, and Penn State might even get freshmen Andre Robinson or Pittsburgh native Miles Sanders involved as well.

2. Pat Narduzzi is familiar with Penn State

This may be the first time Pitt and Penn State are meeting on the same field since the 2000 season, but that doesn’t mean there is a lack of familiarity between the two programs. This game has been hyped for some time, so there has likely been some extra prep work done by both teams. Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi also has some previous experience against Penn State and his coaching counterpart, James Franklin. Narduzzi saw Penn State first-hand as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator two years ago, Franklin’s first season at Penn State. This will, however, be Narduzzi’s first chance going up against Penn State since switching offensive coordinators and quarterback.

3. Can Pitt gain an edge on defense, or was Penn State holding back vs. Kent State?

The Panthers returned the majority of a decent defense from last season and this unit took care of shutting down FCS opponent Villanova last week. Meanwhile, in State College, Penn State’s new-look offense with new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and quarterback Trace McSorley looked like a brand-new offense still getting its feet wet for a while. The hope for Penn State fans is they were playing a rather vanilla style in hopes of unloading some new looks against Pitt. The Panthers will hope to crack Penn State’s offensive line, which allowed just one sack last weekend (down by nine from theiseason-opener a year ago at Temple). Pitt recorded six sacks against Villanova (Penn State had seven sacks vs. Kent State).

Final Analysis

After years of anticipation, it is finally put-up-or-shut-up time in the Keystone State. Pittsburgh appears to have a slight edge overall with a slightly better defense to rely on (Penn State’s defense could take some time to gel), and the offense for the Nittany Lions still appeared to be working out some kinks. Maybe Penn State's offense is better than it appeared against Kent State. If so, that could change the whole dynamic of this game. At this time Pitt is more put-together, but will have to keep Saquon Barkley from making big plays. Do that and the Panthers could win a tight one against their renewed in-state rival. This one should come down to the wire. A calm and steady senior quarterback Nathan Peterman for Pitt could give one significant edge over Penn State with sophomore Trace McSorley until proven otherwise.

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Prediction: Pitt 24, Penn State 23

— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. 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