Penn State Football

How can Pitt come close to an upset over Penn State football? Here are the 2 key matchups

Transfer to Pitt makes PSU change signals

Penn State football coach James Franklin talks about the team changing signals as soon as John Petrishen transferred from the Nittany Lions to Pitt.
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Penn State football coach James Franklin talks about the team changing signals as soon as John Petrishen transferred from the Nittany Lions to Pitt.

No. 13 Penn State is expected to cruise past Pitt in the 100th game of the series at noon Saturday — the Nittany Lions are 17.5-point favorites — but, if PSU wants to win big, it still needs to dominate its matchups.

Here are the two key matchups to Saturday’s game that we think will directly to determine the outcome:

Josh Moyer: Penn State WRs vs Pitt DBs

Penn State’s offensive line struggled mightily last week against a rebuilding Buffalo’s front-seven, and the running game was nonexistent. Sean Clifford and Co. helped save the day so, if Pat Narduzzi follows last week’s script, it’ll be up to Clifford and the receivers to ignite this offense once more.

That might be easier said than done this week. Pitt’s secondary is the strength of the defense, and this matchup is much tougher than Idaho and Buffalo. (Duh.) Cornerback Dane Jackson and safety Damar Hamlin are both All-ACC candidates — the seniors were honorable mentions last year — and the other starting DBs both share obvious potential. Safety Paris Ford, a redshirt sophomore, is seeking to live up to the hype of being one of the nation’s top-70 overall prospects as a high schooler. And Jason Pinnock, the likely starting corner, got the nod in six games last season and brings the experience of playing in 25 career games.

If you doubt the impact of Pitt’s secondary, just look at Narduzzi’s biggest or most recent upsets. In the Panthers’ only top-25 win last season, they upset then-No. 23 Virginia 23-13 after holding the opposing QB to a 39.7 QBR. In 2017, in the 24-14 stunner against No. 2 Miami (Fla.), the Hurricanes pulled their quarterback in the fourth quarter after he finished 15-of-34 passing and had a 31.4 QBR. And, in 2016 during the 43-42 surprise win against Clemson, Deshaun Watson may have thrown all over Pitt for 580 yards — but the Panthers also forced three picks.

You don’t have to take my word for the importance of the DBs-WRs matchup. Penn State coach James Franklin mentioned it Tuesday during his weekly press conference.

“I think that’s a big battle in this game, our wide receivers versus their defensive backs and how physical they play at the line of scrimmage,” he said.

If Penn State’s receivers want to win this war, they’re going to have to win the battle at the line, not get jammed and find separation. At 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, Justin Shorter should have the strength to beat the press — but winning at the line might prove more challenging to KJ Hamler (5-foot-9, 176 pounds) and Jahan Dotson (5-foot-11, 175 pounds).

Pitt is going to dare Penn State’s first-year starter in Clifford to beat it. But, if the receivers win this matchup, the Nittany Lions should cruise for their third straight victory over the Panthers. It’s a battle worth following for all four quarters.

Jon Sauber: Pitt running game vs. Penn State front seven

If Pittsburgh wants to upset Penn State, the Panthers are going to have to run the ball and do it successfully.

The Panthers should try to mimic Buffalo’s game plan when the Bulls went into the half up 10-7 on the Nittany Lions. Lance Leipold’s squad controlled the ball, and the clock, on its way to that lead but couldn’t climb back into the game once it allowed Penn State to score a defensive touchdown early in the third quarter. Had the Bulls controlled the ball for another long touchdown drive, Penn State would’ve been in dire straits, down two possessions with most of the third quarter gone. Instead, the Nittany Lions seized the momentum and the victory after a 28-point third quarter.

Pitt should have the horses to execute that game plan more effectively than the Bulls did. The Panthers feature two running backs, A.J. Davis and Vincent Davis, who have the ability to run on Penn State. The key for the Panthers will be using those players early and often to keep the Penn State offense off the field.

If they’re successful enough running the ball, it should allow them to control the game. If the Panthers can run the ball and control the clock, they’ll be in a position to pull off the upset. If the Penn State run-defense shows up like it did against Idaho, the Nittany Lions will be in a strong position early. The first team to score in this one will be in controls of the pace, so we should know if the Panthers can hang with Penn State not long after the noon kickoff on Saturday.