There are several matchups to watch on Saturday — but some are more important than others.
With everyone keyed in on the newest installment of Penn State-Pitt, let’s take a peek at two matchups — one on offense, one on defense — to keep an eye on.
Offense: Penn State wideouts vs. Pitt corner Avonte Maddox
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Pitt’s secondary is a mess.
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The situation at cornerback was cloudy before the season. Star safety Jordan Whitehead is suspended for a couple more games. And the Panthers are coming off a season opener in which they allowed two egregious fourth-quarter touchdown passes against Youngstown State, almost leading to a loss to the FCS opponent.
That makes Avonte Maddox the most important player against a potent Penn State passing attack.
Maddox, a senior cornerback, is a leader of the Panthers’ defense. The Detroit native is a team captain, started nine games last season and recorded three interceptions in 2016 — including a pick in Pitt’s upset at Clemson.
Maddox didn’t have a particularly impressive season opener. He tripped up in coverage and allowed Youngstown State to score its game-tying touchdown with a few minutes left in regulation.
But if anyone can be relied on in Pitt’s secondary, it’s Maddox.
Penn State receiver Juwan Johnson — standing at 6-foot-4 — is a mismatch on the 5-foot-9 Maddox. It’s more likely that speedy wideout DeAndre Thompkins sees Maddox in coverage.
If Maddox can make a difference, whether it’s a key pass breakup or simply locking down one of Penn State’s targets, it would help the Panthers keep this thing close.
And as 21-point underdogs, that’s at least something for Pitt.
Defense: Penn State cornerbacks vs. Pitt wideout Jester Weah
Jester Weah didn’t record any statistics in Pitt’s 42-39 win over the Nittany Lions last year, but he went on to have one heck of a season.
Weah, a 6-foot-4 junior wideout, tallied 870 yards and 10 touchdowns on 36 receptions (24.4 yards per catch) — all team-highs. The Wisconsin native tallied seven catches of 40 yards or more in 2016, second-most among ACC receivers.
“He can separate from defenders so that’s one thing we’re aware of,” Penn State cornerback Grant Haley said. “We have to be good on our 50-50 balls.”
The Penn State secondary will certainly have its hands full, helping contain Pitt’s jet sweeps while keeping an eye on Quadree Henderson.
But it’ll come down to Haley, Christian Campbell and Amani Oruwariye to limit Weah.
Luckily for the Nittany Lions, Pitt is still working through its offense with a new quarterback and fresh-faced coordinator. That could hamper the Panthers’ attack, thus limiting Weah’s impact.
But even in minimal looks, Weah showed what he was capable of last week. The wideout had only one catch in Pitt’s season-opening win over Youngstown State — but it was a stunning 11-yard, jump-ball touchdown grab in overtime.
“He had the game-winning catch last weekend,” Haley added, “so we’re focused on him as the main wide receiver threat.”