Penn State Football

5 things to watch in Saturday’s Penn State-Pitt college football game

Could a neutral site help ‘rivalry’ game continue?

Penn State football coach James Franklin shares his opinion about playing Pitt again in the future during his press conference on Sept. 10, 2019.
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Penn State football coach James Franklin shares his opinion about playing Pitt again in the future during his press conference on Sept. 10, 2019.

The No. 13 Penn State Nittany Lions (2-0) will take on the ACC’s Pitt Panthers (1-1) in Happy Valley at noon Saturday (ABC) in a Week 3 matchup. Here are five things you should keep an eye on:

Pitt’s Maurice Ffrench and Penn State’s KJ Hamler

If you’re looking for explosive plays, or athletes who will be involved in several facets of Saturday’s game, look no further than Ffrench and Hamler. Hamler is known as “The Human Joystick,” while Ffrench has been referred to as a “cheat code.”

They’re both electric, and they were both put on the Maxwell Award preseason watch list. Both were ranked within the top 20 nationally last season in kick returns, both are speedy receivers, and both aren’t strangers to the run game. Last week, Ffrench fished with 10 catches for 138 yards and a score — even more impressive considering QB Kenny Pickett finished with 26 completions for 321 yards and a single touchdown. Last year, Ffrench also had two kick return TDs.

Hamler boasts speed in the 4.3s and remains Sean Clifford’s primary target at receiver. He’s versatile enough to move around the field, and he’s always a threat to break a long gain. Last season, he averaged a team-high 17.95 yards per reception and led PSU with 754 yards.

These two are both big plays waiting to happen. You can bet James Franklin will be aware of where Ffrench is at all times, and the same holds true with Pat Narduzzi and Hamler.

Penn State offensive line/running game

These two are inextricably linked, although it’s the offensive line that might cap this offense’s potential. It wasn’t pretty last week against rebuilding Buffalo, as the line surrendered seven tackles for loss on 46 offensive plays. It also wasn’t great that, if you take away QB Sean Clifford’s 58-yard run, Penn State averaged less than 1 yard per carry.

Saturday will go a long way in determining whether those hiccups against Buffalo were an anomaly — or if this is going to be an issue for the rest of the season. Pitt’s front seven should provide a much stiffer challenge; defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman had three sacks last week.

Penn State boasts four quality running backs but, so far, it appears as if Journey Brown has separated himself — at least slightly. Ricky Slade, pegged by many to be the primary ball-carrier, has just 17 yards (and a fumble) on eight carries this season. And the talented freshman duo of Devyn Ford and Noah Cain each had one carry apiece last week.

Brown’s straight-line speed is hard to top, but the balance of carries among these four remains in flux. Saturday is yet another tryout of sorts.

Third downs

Last season, Penn State’s offense finished No. 86 nationally with a third-down conversion rate of 37.1 percent. The Nittany Lions were the only team in the FBS to win more than eight games while being ranked 85 or worse.

This season? Against FCS Idaho and the MAC’s Buffalo? It’s been even worse.

Of 130 FBS teams, Penn State is ranked No. 127 with a conversion rate of 17.6 percent. The only teams ranked lower than PSU include Georgia Southern, UAB and New Mexico.

Needless to say, that’s cause for some concern. Penn State is living off its explosive plays right now, and it still needs to prove it can sustain a drive against Power-Five competition. The offense didn’t live up to expectations last year — even with a second-round running back and arguably the best quarterback in school history — and third downs were part of the problem.

Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne needs to dial up more creative plays. The offense needs to execute better — Sean Clifford completed two first-half passes on third down last week, which were short of the sticks — and the offensive line needs to hold their blocks longer. There’s no easy fix here on third downs, but this has to start with Rahne.

Penn State WRs vs. Pitt DBs

We went into this matchup more in depth earlier this week. But this is one of the most-hyped battled for a few reasons.

For one, Pitt’s secondary is the strength of the defense. CB Dane Jackson and S Damar Hamlin are both experienced All-ACC candidates. Two, Pitt will almost certainly challenge first-year starter Sean Clifford to beat it through the air. And, three, Penn State’s receivers boast a good mix of size and speed — so it’ll be strength-on-strength Saturday.

Justin Shorter is 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, while Jahan Dotson (5-foot-11, 175) and KJ Hamler (5-foot-11, 176) are on the smaller-but-speedier side. Pitt plays a quarters defense, and the Nittany Lions will have to beat the press early and often to win this battle — and the game.

James Franklin didn’t try to pretend otherwise earlier this week.

“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 added.

Can Penn State start fast?

This is Pitt’s Super Bowl. If Penn State starts fast, scores early and takes a double-digit lead, Pitt is not built for a comeback. In fact, since Pat Narduzzi took over in 2015, the Panthers have never overcome a halftime deficit of more than four points. (They’re 0-13 when trailing by more than four after two quarters.)

The Nittany Lions trailed 10-7 at halftime against Buffalo a week ago and, even though they’re more than capable of rallying for a comeback against Pitt, a fast start would make things a whole lot easier. It’d also bode well for a team that’s trying to make adjustments before the half — and one that hopes to prove last week wasn’t the start of an unwanted trend.

Penn State can sleepwalk early against inferior opponents and still win handily. But, once the conference season picks up, it can’t just hope for a of repeat 2016, when it was one of the nation’s top second-half teams.

Showing it can start fast now would be a step in the right direction.

Josh Moyer earned his B.A. in journalism from Penn State and his M.S. from Columbia. He’s been involved in sports and news writing for nearly 20 years. He counts the best athlete he’s ever seen as Tecmo Super Bowl’s Bo Jackson.