Penn State and Pitt face off for the 99th time in their history at 8 p.m. Saturday at Heinz Field. Here are five aspects of this weekend’s game to watch.
Involvement of DeAndre Thompkins
Thompkins might be the fastest player in Penn State’s program, but he didn’t get to show off that speed last Saturday. The fifth-year wide receiver didn’t get a single catch against Appalachian State. In fact, he wasn’t even targeted.
So what gives? Why did Thompkins incur just his third game without a catch since the 2016 Big Ten Championship?
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Well, in Penn State’s offense, quarterback Trace McSorley’s read-based decision-making can inadvertently leave pass-catchers out in the cold. For example, there were three games last season in which future second-round pick Mike Gesicki recorded only two catches. Duds happen.
Still, Brandon Polk — who was out there instead of Thompkins for the entire final scoring drive of regulation — was trusted by McSorley to keep the series going with a fourth-and-2 conversion.
Thompkins had three catches for 87 yards, including a 39-yarder, when Penn State visited Heinz Field in 2016. Facing Pitt’s aggressive press coverage, can McSorley find Thompkins breaking free downfield? Or will Polk push for more attention?
John Reid’s rust
For the final 13 plays of last weekend’s game, redshirt junior John Reid stood idly by on the sidelines. On Appalachian State’s final two drives of regulation and its overtime series, it was sophomore Tariq Castro-Fields who took Reid’s spot at cornerback.
It may seem weird for Reid — a 2016 All-Big Ten honorable mention selection and one of Penn State’s defensive leaders — not to be on the field when it matters most. Reid is also a guy who missed an entire year of football due to a season-ending knee injury last spring. And he looked out of form.
“John played like a guy that hadn’t played for a year,” head coach James Franklin said at his Tuesday press conference. “He did some things really good, but did some things where he was a little bit inconsistent. ...There was a little bit of rust on him, and we were able to chip some of that rust off.”
That shakiness hasn’t affected his position with the Nittany Lions. Reid is listed as the starting corner opposite Amani Oruwariye, and Franklin believes “John’s going to have a huge year.” Still, it will be interesting to see how the corner rebounds.
An eye on Aston
Two years ago, Penn State was stunned. After Pitt ran a vanilla look the week before against Youngstown State, then-offensive coordinator Matt Canada broke out the Panthers’ real system, one that’s predicated on shifts and jet sweep motions, when the Nittany Lions came to town.
That’s when Penn State fans were introduced to Pitt fullback George Aston. The 240-pound bulldozer “gave (Penn State) fits,” according to Franklin. Aston scored two touchdowns, a 1-yard sweep in the first quarter and a 3-yard push in the second, contributing to the Panthers’ 42-39 win.
That was typical of Aston in 2016. He scored 10 touchdowns and tallied just 224 scrimmage yards that year. But in 2017, Aston missed all but two games due to injury. And in Pitt’s opener against Albany, the fullback played, but did not touch the football.
Will Aston re-capture his 2016 role on Saturday?
Pressure on Pinegar
True freshman placekicker Jake Pinegar experienced plenty of pressure in his first-ever collegiate game. The Iowa native drilled a game-tying extra point near the end of regulation, slipped in an overtime PAT and connected on a 32-yard field goal in the first half. In total, Pinegar was 7 for 7 on his kicks last Saturday.
But how will he fare when the raucous, rabid crowd isn’t quieting down for him? How will he deal with the heckling from Pitt fans at Heinz Field on Saturday night?
Against Appalachian State, with the Nittany Lions’ season already in the balance, Pinegar looked calm on the sideline toward the latter stages of the fourth quarter and overtime. But on the road — in a rivalry setting, no less — Pinegar will find himself in another pressure situation. How he handles it will speak volumes about the true freshman.
Will Givens go?
Givens, who missed the opener due to a violation of team rules, might be suited up in Pittsburgh with the Nittany Lions. Or he might be sitting at home on his couch in State College. Franklin didn’t give a clear answer when asked Tuesday if Givens would be available against the Panthers. “Yeah, I hope so,” isn’t really a firm commitment to the defensive tackle coming back.
If he’s back, it’s a significant boost to Brent Pry’s defense. Givens, who racked up 3.5 sacks in 2017, has the flexibility to start anywhere on the defensive line. He’s listed as a first-team defensive tackle on this week’s depth chart, but he was last week, too, and didn’t see the field. Redshirt freshman Fred Hansard started in his place and looked like a youngster making his first collegiate action.
If Givens is not available, it’ll be on Hansard, redshirt sophomores Ellison Jordan and Antonio Shelton and true freshman PJ Mustipher to pick up the slack. That’s not ideal against a team that just rushed for 238 yards in their opener and has a recent history of gashing the Nittany Lions on the ground.
In the teams’ last two meetings combined, Pitt ran the ball 101 times for 496 yards. Whether or not Givens returns could end up being the difference.