For the first time in nearly two decades, Beaver Stadium is set to host Penn State-Pitt.
On Saturday, the Nittany Lions and Panthers will meet for the 98th time with Penn State eager to push its series lead to 51-43-4.
Here are five things to keep an eye on this Saturday:
1. Saquon the Returner
There was a lot of confusion and skepticism surrounding Saquon Barkley returning the opening kickoff of the second half in Saturday’s win over Akron — a game that Penn State had in the bag with a 35-0 lead after two quarters.
But James Franklin not only defended the decision but also said Tuesday that he and his staff won’t be shy about using Barkley as a kick returner.
So, will Saquon get the chance to bring one back against the Panthers if the Nittany Lions are winning big? Probably. What if Penn State is in a tight one with the Panthers? Count on it.
Barkley had a 17-yard return against the Panthers in 2016, one of three attempts on the season.
Don’t be surprised to see him back there regardless of the situation.
2. Saeed’s snaps
Eight different receivers caught passes against Akron — and Saeed Blacknall wasn’t one of them.
Blacknall — known for his breakout game in the Big Ten title game with six catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns — played 30 of 65 snaps in Penn State’s blowout win, per 247 Sports. And honestly, 30 snaps seems like a lot.
With DeAndre Thompkins starting over him at the “Z” wideout position, Blacknall was a non-factor in the opener.
We’ll see if that changes against the Panthers.
3. Trace taking off
Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley kicked off the 2017 season with promising play in the running game, getting involved from the get-go.
Expect him to do the same against Pitt — at least, if that’s what the Panther defense gives him.
McSorley tallied 48 rushing yards and a 4-yard scoring scamper against the Zips. The redshirt junior recorded 32 rushing yards on three carries on Penn State’s first drive.
“I think it’s really just taking what the defense gave us early and not trying to force things early on,” McSorley said Tuesday. “If a play-call is not there, it’s making it positive and getting positive yards. I think that’s the best way that you can get the whole team into a flow.”
McSorley really shouldn’t have too much trouble doing that against these Panthers.
All four players who recorded sacks for Pitt in last year’s win — Ejuan Price, Shakir Soto, Rori Blair and Quintin Wirginis — won’t play Saturday. Two are in the NFL, while Blair was dismissed from the team and Wirginis is out for the year with a non-football injury.
This Pitt defense is vulnerable, and McSorley should feast. That includes making a sizable impact on the ground.
4. Jarvis Miller, Tyrell Chavis impact
In 2016, the Nittany Lions who typically led the team in tackles on a game-to-game basis were the usual suspects: Marcus Allen, Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda, to name a few.
But in the 2017 opener, Penn State’s defense — at least statistically — was guided by a couple backups. Second-string linebacker Jarvis Miller and reserve defensive tackle Tyrell Chavis, along with starting linebacker Manny Bowen, tallied a team-high five tackles against Akron.
Miller, a redshirt sophomore and converted safety, tallied a sack. Meanwhile, Chavis had a game-high three tackles for loss.
Penn State played 37 defensive players in its opener. That kind of rotation isn’t expected against Pitt.
But after impressive showings last weekend, Chavis and Miller might’ve carved out a larger role moving forward.
5. Fan hostility?
There’s a reason why this one isn’t a night game.
Still, hours of tailgating before the 3:30 p.m. kick is sure to drum up confrontation between Penn State and Pitt fans.
Franklin tweeted on Wednesday asking Penn State fans to be gracious hosts and “show the Pitt fans what a wonderful place Happy Valley is.”
It is a heated rivalry, though, so it’ll be interesting to see how both fanbases interact in the hours leading up to kickoff.