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Pitt set to battle in-state rival Penn State on Saturday

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, Pitt defeated Albany in the season opener, dominating the game in a 33-7 win. Suffice to say, this weekend will present a significantly tougher challenge.

Pitt welcomes in-state rival Penn State to Heinz Field this Saturday. I’m not going to get into the tired discussion of it not being a rivalry, etc. Anyone with a lick of sense realizes it is and, whether or not you personally think this game should be played, all you have to do is head to Twitter to see the back and forth between fanbases that runs on a year-round basis. These two teams, coaches, players, and fanbases don’t care for each other. They bicker about educational rankings. About recruits. About playing ability. About mascots. The merits of the game being played on an annual basis can certainly be debated. But anyone that tells you flatly that the game isn’t a rivalry is generally either going to be one of the three I’s - ill-informed, in denial, or, frankly, not all that intelligent in such matters.

So what can we expect Saturday? From a competitive standpoint in this weekend’s contest, I expect Pitt to perform better than they did in the 2017 matchup. While Pitt hung around a little in the first half, they never got any real offense going and Penn State dominated that game without much trouble.

Pitt just wasn’t right last year. Secondary play early in the year was pretty bad and equally important was that the Panthers never really settled their quarterback situation until the very end of the year. Senior transfer Max Browne began the season as the team’s starter and, while he had some bright spots, he struggled against Penn State and was ultimately replaced by Ben DiNucci, with whom he shared time. DiNucci took over after Browne was injured in the Syracuse game before giving way to Pickett and that’s where we are now. The quarterback issues really kept Pitt from achieving much of anything and they missed out on a bowl game for the first time since 2007.

Everything starts at quarterback and Pitt is just much more equipped to compete against Penn State this season as long as they can keep Pickett healthy. Does that mean a win? Not necessarily. But with the game at home and more stability at quarterback, I expect them to be more competitive than last season at Penn State.

Pitt will certainly have an uphill battle this weekend, though - quarterback or no quarterback. The Nittany Lions are a top ten team with aspirations of getting into the National Championship playoffs. They’re led by quarterback Trace McSorley and, even though running back Saquon Barkley has moved on to the NFL, the Nittany Lions have plenty of firepower left.

I know a lot of hopeful Pitt fans are pointing to Penn State’s near disaster in Happy Valley against Appalachian State this weekend where they needed overtime to win. But while scares like that happen from time to time, they’re not necessarily indicative of a team’s talent level. Pitt knows that all too well with some recent season openers. In 2015, for example, the Panthers held on in a narrow 45-38 shootout against FCS team Youngstown State. But they then went on to sneak into the Top 25 briefly and have a pretty decent year.

Those kinds of games can be a little alarming, I suppose. But in general, college football is filled with close games and upsets week after week. If Penn State had lost that game, that would be another matter entirely. But winning close? Every team is tested every single year. If you’re a Pitt fan, I wouldn’t necessarily hang your hat on the fact that the Panthers looked good in the opener while Penn State did not.

Offensively, as stated, Pitt is set at quarterback and we know he can make plays. The question is if there are enough playmakers on a solid but possibly unspectacular unit. There are athletes to be sure in guys like Maurice Ffrench. And, to be honest, it might not matter if Pitt is able to present a balanced attack and get a little bit of production from a lot of guys rather than huge days from one or two. I just still think there are questions about the offense’s ability to consistently score points.

Defensively, I was encouraged by what I saw against Albany. Pitt was able to get a good amount of pressure to help cut down on any deficiencies in the secondary. Those deficiencies, however, do seem to still exist as Albany was able to move the ball downfield a little and accumulated 263 passing yards. As a whole, I like what they did in the opener. But there could still be hiccups in the secondary, which has some inexperience.

It is worth pointing out that McSorley didn’t have a huge day passing last season against Pitt with only 164 yards. In 2016, though, he threw for 332 yards and the bottom line is that he’s plenty capable of having a big day. If you’re looking for a key matchup in the game, it very well could be Penn State’s passing game against the Pitt secondary. How much McSorley is able to do, of course, will be dependent upon the pressure that the Panthers can bring from the front seven. If those guys are able to make some noise, that will help the secondary out quite a bit.

Friends, I’ve got no idea where this game goes. It’s a rivalry game and those are often difficult to predict. But it is notable that the spread of 7.5 points in Penn State’s favor is significantly down from the spring prediction when it was about twice as much.

Oddsmakers seem to believe the game will be closer than last year and I tend to agree.

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