Maybe it’s easy to overstate the Penn State-Pitt rivalry that goes back to 1893, but it concludes Saturday – for the time being or perhaps forever – with the 100th meeting.
Here are five things to watch:
Penn State rushed for an impressive 331 yards in its season opener against Idaho, sparked by four running backs who played at just about an equal level. But that number dropped to 78 yards last week against Buffalo, with the four backs combining for just 39.
Head coach James Franklin said he plans to find playing time Saturday for all four. Sophomore Ricky Slade again is likely to start, with redshirt sophomore Journey Brown and true freshmen Noah Cain and Devyn Ford splitting reps.
“It may be Ricky is going to take the first two series and then go two to one with Journey,” Franklin said. “Then maybe the next time, it goes one to Ricky to now Cain, and then back to Ricky and then one to Ford. That may be how we’re going into it to start but then as the game goes, if someone’s hot, we’ll go with the hot hand.”
The Pittsburgh defense allowed an average of 82 rush yards in its first two games. That includes nine sacks, including three last week by 290-pound sophomore defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman. The Panthers have done this while overcoming the loss of two starters for the season with injuries.
With first-year offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, a veteran of nearly 40 years of coaching, the Panthers are throwing the ball at a much higher rate than they have the last three seasons.
Pitt, which ran the ball on more than 64 percent of its offensive plays in 2018, has thrown 78 passes while running it 67 times. Junior Kenny Pickett, who averaged 22 pass attempts last season, has completed 60.3% for 506 yards and two touchdowns.
Senior Maurice Ffrench, a receiver and return specialist who is the Panthers’ answer to the Lions’ KJ Hamler, has 16 catches already for 192 yards and a touchdown. It will be a stern test for the Penn State secondary.
The Panthers’ secondary is big – each of the four starters is at least 6 feet tall and 190 pounds – and Hamler, Jahan Dotson, and the Nittany Lions’ other young receivers must find ways to get open against tight coverage.
“A lot of times, they will play press on the two outside receivers,” Franklin said. “They’ll be very aggressive at the line of scrimmage, very hands-on, very physical.”
Hamler and Dotson will have to use their speed to escape from their defenders, and receivers like Justin Shorter (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) and Daniel George (6-2, 220) must win their one-on-one battles.
Jordan Stout, Penn State’s transfer kicker from Virginia Tech, has put on a show with his kickoffs the past two weeks, booming 20 of his 21 kicks for touchbacks, including all eight against Buffalo. It could get to the point where the Nittany Lions’ cheerleaders will have to wear helmets whenever Stout kicks toward the student section.
Sure, the last four years marked the only times the teams have played since 2000. A lot of students at each university never got to experience the intensity and excitement of the duel. The Ohio State game means much more to many current and former Penn State students than playing Pitt.
But for the old-timers and football alumni, there has to be a degree of sadness to see the uncertainty over whether this game will ever be played again. The Panthers seem eager to continue but the Lions, not so much, although Franklin said his program is ready to talk at any time.
Many think it’s a rivalry worth holding on to. Consider that Saturday whether you’re watching in person or on television.
Saturday, noon, Beaver Stadium, State College
TV/Radio: 6ABC; WPHT-AM (1210), WNPV-AM (1440)
Records: Pittsburgh, 1-1; Penn State, 2-0
Coaches: Pittsburgh, Pat Narduzzi (fifth season, 29-25); Penn State, James Franklin (sixth season, 47-21).