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Pittsburgh Panthers vs. Penn State Nittany Lions Preview and Prediction

Trace McSorley

Trace McSorley

Coming off an impressive season-opening win at home, the defending Big Ten champions from Penn State welcome their in-state rivals from Pittsburgh back to Beaver Stadium for the first time since 1999. Coincidentally, Penn State is looking for its first win against the Panthers since that 1999 matchup.

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Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi has kept his team tucked away from the media this week leading up to the game, just as he did a year ago. It may have paid off for the Panthers last season, who held on to a 42-39 victory after weathering a strong second-half surge from the Nittany Lions, but stepping into a raucous Beaver Stadium this weekend could be a much different story.

Pittsburgh at Penn State

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 9 at 3:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ABC

Spread: Penn State -21

Three Things to Watch

1. No slow start for Penn State

One of the big reasons why Pitt managed to top Penn State last season was the Panthers taking it to the Nittany Lions early on. Pitt marched 99 yards in 10 plays for the opening score and less than a minute later capitalized on a Penn State turnover for a quick 14-0 lead. Pitt pushed the lead to 28-7 within the span of two minutes in the second quarter with another long touchdown drive and then capitalizing once more on a fumble to tack on another score three plays later. Both fumbles were by quarterback Trace McSorley. Penn State would develop a knack for a big second half, but McSorley has to be more careful if under pressure (remember he was picked off in the end zone on Penn State's opening drive last week). The offensive line for Penn State is better now than a year ago, and the defense played well last week.

2. How much was Pitt holding back in Week 1?

The Panthers seemingly struggled last weekend in their opener after being pushed into overtime by Bo Pelini's Youngstown State Penguins at home. The offense for the Panthers has a new look this season with Max Browne taking over at quarterback, a new offensive coordinator in Shawn Watson (most recently at Indiana), and no more James Conner. But the Panthers still have dangerous wide receiver Quadree Henderson and running back Quadree Ollison, and an offensive line heavy with seniors. This is an offense that has potential to make things happen, so how much were the Panthers holding back in an effort not to show Penn State much on film this week? This was the blueprint for a win last season for the Panthers, so expect to see some improved play from the Panthers this week. Will it be enough to keep up with Penn State?

3. Panthers will struggle to keep up the pace

Penn State's defense was locked in last week against Akron, but this is a defensive unit that should be able to be moved on with the right offensive ingredients. Pitt appears to have what you need to move the ball on Penn State, but the Panthers' defensive concerns will be exposed by what may be the best offense in the Big Ten. Saquon Barkley scored five touchdowns against the Panthers last season and is coming off a fantastic 2017 debut with 172 rushing yards, two touchdowns, and 54 receiving yards. Tight end Mike Gesicki caught six passes for 58 yards and two scores. McSorley has wide receivers in Juwan Johnson, DaeSean Hamilton and DeAndre Thompkins that should find room against a Pitt secondary that is still without Jordan Whitehead due to suspension, and the Panthers have not been able to play the level of defense head coach Pat Narduzzi was expected to bring with him from his days as Michigan State's defensive coordinator. Pitt may be able to score some points, but stopping this Penn State offense will be a tall order for the Panthers.

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Final Analysis

A year ago, Penn State and Pitt were two vastly different teams in two different places. Pitt was a team with a solid foundation built on veterans and looked more prepared and capable of taking a win at home against a Penn State team still developing and finding itself in Week 2. This season is a nearly mirror image in many respects with Penn State being the more experienced and veteran team going into the home game in the renewed rivalry. Pitt should be able to hang with Penn State for a while if the Panthers can get off to a decent start and not let the home team storm out of the gates. But the Panthers should only be able to contain the Nittany Lions' offense for so long before the big plays come, as Penn State eventually pulls away in the second half. 

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Penn State

Prediction: Penn State 44, Pittsburgh 20

— 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.