Penn State may be favored against Pitt but, if it wants to win, it still needs to dominate its matchups. Here are the two key matchups to Saturday’s game that we think will determine the outcome:
John McGonigal: Penn State QB Trace McSorley vs. Pitt secondary
After edging a stingy App State secondary in the opener, Trace McSorley won’t have it easy this week, either. Pitt’s back end is arguably the best part of its team — even after losing two NFL talents.
Safety Jordan Whitehead and cornerback Avonte Maddox, both fourth-round picks in April, are gone. But Dennis Briggs, Damar Hamlin and Bricen Garner — who combined for 104 tackles in 2017 — return at safety, while corner Dane Jackson (11 passes defensed last year) is worth keeping an eye on.
At the very least, Penn State coach James Franklin is keeping tabs on Jackson, who didn’t play last week against Albany but should be good to go Saturday night at Heinz Field.
“I think it’s a guy that they have a lot of confidence in, from everything that we’ve seen and read that they feel like is their top guy,” Franklin said at his Tuesday press conference. “It’s going to be a challenge. They’re going to be in your face. That’s who they are.”
Similar to what Michigan State runs, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi — Sparty’s former defensive coordinator — loves to press the “X” and “Z” outside wide receivers. That’s what the Panthers did so well in Pitt’s upset of undefeated Miami last November, forcing Hurricanes quarterback Malik Rosier into his second-worst performance of the season (11 of 15 passing, 187 yards, 31.4 QBR).
That game finished off an impressive closing stretch for the Panthers’ secondary. In Pitt’s first seven games of 2017, the defense allowed a 60 percent completion rate and 15 yards per catch. In the last five games, the Panthers held opponents to a 50 percent completion rate and 12.9 yards per catch.
In those first seven games, Pitt went 2-5 and allowed 31.4 points per game. In the final five contests, it went 3-2, losing to Virginia Tech and North Carolina by a combined nine points.
If Jackson, Hamlin, Briggs and more can summon that late-season form without Whitehead and Maddox, McSorley ought to come ready for a battle.
Josh Moyer: Pitt QB Kenny Pickett vs. Penn State secondary
You’re close, McGonigal, but you’re looking at the wrong side of the field. If Pitt wins this game, it’s going to start with their wild card in Pickett — and how the Nittany Lions handle him.
In Penn State’s upset scare last week, opposing dual-threat QB Zac Thomas wound up with 270 passing yards, 43 rushing yards and three total touchdowns. Well, Pickett may be a bit of a well-kept secret now — but, as another dual threat, he’s got an even higher ceiling.
That was Thomas’ first-ever start; this will be Pickett’s third. And it’s worth reminding that, in Pickett’s first career start last season, he helped upset No. 13 Miami 24-14 by scoring all three of the Panthers’ touchdowns. Pickett is accurate, he’s quick, and he’s built up a lot of deserved hype in western Pennsylvania.
“That guy has an instinct,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi told reporters last month. “You can teach all you want, but he’s got a knack, too. I’m just watching sometimes the pressures that are coming, how he steps up and weasels around and gets out of them like, ‘Holy cow.’”
Pitt pulled off a lot of dink-and-dunk passes in the season-opening win against Albany, and there’s no doubt that Narduzzi took an iceberg approach to his playbook — you’ve only just seen a small part of it. Pickett can air it out, he can run, and he reportedly went at least half of camp without throwing an interception. And, if his team does stick with the conservative passing game, he was still 13-of-13 dinking-and-dunking in the first half against Albany.
On the other end? The Nittany Lions’ secondary looked lost at times against Appalachian State. Cornerback John Reid — who’s coming off a season-ending leg injury — is still knocking off the rust, and Penn State is still trying to recover from losing all four DB starters from last season. Pitt has the ability to win this matchup and, if it does, there’s a good chance it wins this game.