Had an opportunity to do a Q&A with Aaron Yorke of SB Nation's Penn State blog, Black Shoe Diaries. Aaron breaks down the rivalry from a Penn State vantage point and discusses some of the Nittany Lions' key players in advance of this weekend's game. See my questions to him below as well as his responses.
1. (Cardiac Hill) The public approach to the game seems to be significantly different between the coaches for Pitt and Penn State. Pat Narduzzi has made no secret that he considers this to be a rivalry game and one of the Panthers' biggest contests each year it's played. By contrast, James Franklin generally has downplayed it a bit (at least compared to Narduzzi) to the public, stressing a one-game-at-a-time approach. Do you expect the game means a little more to him than he lets on publicly?
(Aaron Yorke / Black Shoe Diaries) Maybe this game does mean more to Franklin than he's letting on, or maybe he's like a lot of Penn State fans who consider Ohio State and Michigan to be the program's biggest rivals. Those teams have more national appeal than Pitt and are the ones that have to be beaten if the goal is a Big Ten championship. I think the Pitt rivalry still means a lot in the state of Pennsylvania, but you can't blame Franklin and Penn State fans for getting more excited for other games on the schedule.
2. Pitt hasn't made a ton of noise in local recruiting despite the win over Penn State last year. The Nittany Lions, meanwhile, are steamrolling right along on the local recruiting scene after a big season following that loss. How much do you think the game matters in terms of landing recruits that the two sides are mutually pursuing?
It'd be one thing if Pitt defeated Penn State and then went on to play in a bigger bowl game than the Nittany Lions, but these Lions played in the freaking Rose Bowl last year, and that's a brand name that carries a lot of weight. Whatever damage in recruiting street cred the Panthers dealt Penn State last September was more than made up for when the Lions won the Big Ten title and went on to play in the most famous bowl game of all. In a nutshell, I think success in general is more important for recruiting than the result of a single game.
3. Saquon Barkley is the big gun for Penn State, obviously, but they have plenty of weapons. Who are the most dangerous guys on offense aside from Barkley?
Trace McSorley is a weapon in his own right with the way he can hurt opponents in the run game when they pursue Barkley too aggressively. When he opts to throw the ball, though, the quarterback has plenty of athleticism at his disposal. Mike Gesicki has a chance to lead the team in receiving from the tight end spot with his combination of size and speed, and he proved to be a mismatch for Akron while pulling down six receptions for two touchdowns. DeAndre Thompkins only caught two balls on Saturday, but he showed how dangerous he can be with 127 yards and a score in the punt return game. Two other wide receivers to look out for are Juwan Johnson and DaeSean Hamilton, as Johnson's height and Hamilton's experience could allow either of them to blossom into one of the Big Ten's top pass-catchers.
4. We talk a lot about the Nittany Lions' offense, but who are some of the playmakers on defense?
The top two defensive players are Jason Cabinda at middle linebacker and Marcus Allen at free safety. While Cabinda isn't the most athletic linebacker ever, he makes up for it by being a sure tackler with good discipline and leadership skills. Allen is a big hitter who loves to be aggressive in run defense and intimidate receivers in the passing game.
5. Looking ahead to next year a little, who do you anticipate might be leaving early for the NFL from Penn State after this season?
Barkley will almost certainly leave school after this year, as he's expected to be one of the most coveted prospects in the NFL Draft. Meanwhile, Johnson's size at wide receiver could make him an intriguing player at the next level if he's able to put up big numbers this season. On defense, most of the top performers are seniors, but Shareef Miller at defensive end is a redshirt sophomore I could see breaking out and grabbing the attention of professional scouts.
6. We hear quite a bit from Penn State fans that don't consider Pitt to be a strong rival for the program. Some of that undoubtedly stems from the fact that the game hadn't been played for more than a decade up until last season. Do you think the stance of some Nittany Lions fans has changed after the reemergence of the game last year?
I think we'd be talking more about a change in mindset if the Pitt loss had ruined Penn State's season, but instead the Lions went on to win a conference title. This game isn't going to be seen as important as others when it doesn't help determine Penn State's postseason fate. Another factor could be fans from Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New York living so far away from Pittsburgh that the in-state nature of the rivalry doesn't register for them. Maybe that would change if this game was played closer to the end of the season or if Pitt rises to ACC royalty alongside programs like Florida State and Clemson.
7. What is your prediction for the game on Saturday?
I don't have a lot of faith in Pitt's defense being able to stop Penn State's vertical passing game. Penn State 38, Pitt 14.
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