Aggressive offense, kicking game and defensive line are the recipe for Penn State victory
As Penn State and Pitt get set for the 100th and most likely final meeting for the foreseeable future Saturday, I have three keys for the Nittany Lions to make it three straight wins.
After watching Pitt lose to Virginia and beat Ohio University at home to start the 2019 campaign, what stands out to me most is this team is short on playmakers and speed. The Panthers have a new offensive coordinator and the growing pains of a new system are obvious.
Defensively the Panthers are adequate and operate more consistently than the offense, which brings me to my first key.
In the James Franklin vs. Pat Narduzzi era of this match-up, Penn State is 2-1 and has scored 123 points in those three contests. That is a trend.
All the chatter this week between the two head coaches about signals – Franklin went fishing with that intentional comment about having to change signals because former Penn State safety John Petrishen transferred to Pitt recently and Narduzzi took the bait – is smoke and mirrors.
Bottom line is Penn State has an offense built on stretching Pitt’s defense outside of its comfort zone with relative ease. The more wide open offense the Lions were forced to reveal in the second half against Buffalo last week is a perfect blueprint for Saturday. So pick up right where you left off a week ago.
The Panthers don’t have the firepower offensively to chase down a game from behind. The longer this game is a single-digit contest, the more comfortable the Panthers will become.
Pitt has a legitimate big-time weapon in wide receiver/return specialist Maurice Ffrench. He’s a solid wideout, but his real danger zone is as the kick returner. Enter senior punter Blake Gillikin and sophomore kickoff sensation Chris Stoll.
Those two kickers are what I call a hidden key this week. In warm and calm conditions at Beaver Stadium, it seems all Stoll does is bomb touchbacks. That trend continuing would be ideal for PSU. Gillikin is a very good punter coming off a so-so junior year. He’s been better early has proven he can lethal at times during his Penn State career in terms of pinning teams deep. Keep the ball way from Ffrench.
Finally, this game for me boils down to the Penn State defensive line, a very deep and talented group, taking over this game. That’s my third and final key.
This group has to be more physical than it was a week ago and do a better job of maintaining gap control in the run game.
And with all the speed available off the edge, making Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett uncomfortable in the pocket will not help an offense already struggling to work through the growing pains of a new system.
The spread is 17 points. Penn State is favored and at home, a healthy wagering proposition the last few years. I see the defensive line and kicking game as two huge match-up advantages for the Nittany Lions. I see Penn State covering the 17 points with ease and winning 31-6.