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Keys to success for Pitt against Penn State

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NCAA Football: Ohio at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As we know, Pitt faces an uphill battle against ranked Penn State this weekend. The Panthers enter the game as a heavy underdog and there’s good reason for that.

Still, bigger upsets have happened and there is a path here for the Panthers to, at a minimum, keep things close. What is that path? Here are some things Pitt needs to do to have a chance on Saturday.

Control the Clock

Time of possession is not always a great indicator of how a game has gone. Pitt, after all, actually won that metric in the Oklahoma State disaster of a few years back. Despite having the ball more, the Panthers had their doors blown off in a 59-21 romp because the Cowboys were scoring quickly. However, it’s still a pretty important factor and can help underdogs keep up with more talented teams.

Now, this seems like it would have been a more realistic option in years past. These days, Pitt is throwing more and the team has more questions about the run game than we’re used to. But if the Panthers are to pull off an upset Saturday, I’m convinced they’re going to have to put together some drives that allow the defense to rest while shortening the game a bit.

How head coach Pat Narduzzi handles this is going to be interesting. He loves to run the ball but has allowed new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple to take what can almost be considered to be a pass first approach. Does Pitt stick with that here or do they revert to trying to be run-heavy? The latter, of course, is Narduzzi’s preference as he’s said he’d like to run at least 60% of the time. But the Panthers have been throwing more than anticipated and the offensive approach on Saturday is anybody’s guess.

Whatever it is, it will need to be effective to limit the time Penn State’s offense is out there. Offensively, Penn State has been a force thus far piling up 124 points through only two games. Yes, it’s early and yes, the competition has been suspect. But it’s still easy to see that the Nittany Lions can be dangerous with the ball in their hands.

Pitt will need to establish some semblance of a running game. That may be asking for a lot given what we’ve seen thus far. But Pitt did have more success running against Ohio this past weekend with A.J. Davis and Vincent Davis teaming up for 139 yards on 25 carries. A.J., in particular, rushed for nearly seven yards per carry. Ohio’s obviously much different from Penn State or Virginia, but that game did hopefully allow those guys to get a little more comfortable.

The utilization of the tight end as well could be a big factor in Pitt’s ability to move the sticks and keep the ball. While we’d laugh at that in recent years when the Panthers haven’t thrown to them much, last weekend’s game at Ohio was a step in the right direction. Tight ends Will Gragg and Nakia Griffin-Stewart combined for seven catches last weekend and that kind of production gives quarterback Kenny Pickett another option in what has been a pass-heavy offense so far.

I like Pitt’s defense a good bit and, as I suggested in the preview, that unit is clearly the one that has a better chance for success in this one. That said, they aren’t lights out and can’t be relied upon to make stop after stop if the offense is routinely going three and out.

Win the Field Position Battle

We saw just how vital this was in Pitt’s opener when the Panthers fell to Virginia. The Panthers lost the game 30-14 but, as I wrote afterwards, the field position was a huge factor. Virginia scored all of its touchdowns on short fields having to march only 19 yards, 27 yards, and 29 yards for their three trips to the end zone.

Pitt doesn’t necessarily need Penn State to hand them that kind of position (though, frankly, it’d be nice). The Panthers, believe it or not, have actually moved the ball on offense and shown capable of putting together some longer drives. Against a stout defense in Virginia, Pitt had touchdown drives of 80 yards and 85 yards. And in addition to a quick strike 74-yard touchdown against Ohio on Saturday, Pitt also had a 13-play, 79-yard drive against that resulted in a field goal. The Panthers’ offense has questions, no doubt. But they can put together a longer scoring drive.

But what they can’t do is allow the Nittany Lions the kind of convenience they allowed Virginia. Part of that is depending on the offense to move the ball even on drives where they don’t score and the other part is to limit costly mistakes like turnovers in their own end.

If the Panthers give Penn State short fields to work with, game over.

Make a Special Teams Play

I hate seeing this one pop up in keys to victory posts because it often is a reach for most teams or is overly vague. But Pitt actually has a playmaker capable of pulling a rabbit out of a hat here in returner Maurice Ffrench.

Virginia and Ohio both bottled up Ffrench pretty good on special teams. He’s only gotten to return one kick and, while he’s fielded eight punts, he hasn’t done much there. Still, his big-play potential is clear as we’ve seen from him in the past. Last season he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns and there wouldn’t be a better time for those kinds of heroics than this Saturday.

If the Panthers get a big play out of Ffrench as a returner, that would take some pressure off of a pretty questionable offense. And, as stated, it’s not a reach.

Special teams go far beyond getting a home run play, obviously. Pitt needs to have its own coverage play well and also convert its field goals. But a big play by Ffrench (or someone else) could be huge for the Panthers.

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