The last Pitt-Penn State game for likely a long time is tomorrow, and it’s in Happy Valley. We wanted to get a view from the other side to learn a bit more about the team Pitt is facing tomorrow.
Dylan Callaghan-Croley from Black Shoe Diaries was nice enough to answer a few questions for us.
On the flip side, you can check out Dylan’s questions and my answers on Pitt here
Pitt fans got an early look at QB Sean Clifford last year on a touchdown pass when Pitt fell behind late in the game, and he seems to be playing very well through Penn State’s first two games. How has Clifford looked, and what are some of his strengths that Pitt will have to account for?
Dylan: Through two games, Clifford has looked really good albeit against lesser opponents in Idaho and Buffalo. That being said, when calm and collected, Clifford has been extremely accurate on all types of throws and showed why Penn State wasn’t just going to give former Nittany Lion Tommy Stevens the starting job. Clifford’s strengths are his accuracy and arm strength and when he can combine the two, opposing secondary’s are in deep trouble. When he’s clam, it’s hard to throw him off his game but if his nerves get up a bit on Saturday, it could lead to some errant throws.
Miles Sanders did well in the running game last year after the departure of Barkley. Who’s been the running back to take the reins now with Sanders gone so far? Clifford is Penn State’s leading rusher, and it seems like a lot of guys are getting carries.
Dylan: I mentioned it below as well but Penn State’s rushing attack this season hasn’t been up to par so far. The offensive line has struggled in the run block and the stats show it for the most part. The last three-four years, Penn State really has had a main guy in either Saquon Barkley or Miles Sanders. Now with both in the NFL, the Nittany Lions really haven’t found a guy to take over as that primary ball carrier. Instead, they’re using a four running back system with Ricky Slade, Journey Brown, Devyn Ford, and Noah Cain. Three of those guys are either former four star or five star recruits (Slade, Ford, Cain) while Brown holds Pennsylvania state records in rushing yards in a single game and holds the Pennsylvania record in the 100m dash at 10.43. In week one, we saw a rather even split of carries between all four. Last week, it wasn’t as split but all four still saw time on the field.
Right now, Ricky Slade is the probable “starter” but he could be on a short leash after fumbling twice last week including one that was recovered by Buffalo. If he does get yanked for some reason on Saturday, Journey Brown will most likely be the primary beneficiary while Ford and Cain will float in and out as the game progresses. Ford seems to be primarily used in between the 20s while Cain has been getting more carries in the red zone.
Now, with Clifford being the leading rusher, that’s been partially due to the poor run block but also Clifford’s underrated ability to get out of the pocket and run. He’s not a huge speed threat and he’s not going to juke defender’s out of their cleat but he can make an opposing defense pay for mistakes. Also, his rushing numbers are inflated by a strong 48-yard run against Buffalo last week. He’s going to get his fair share of yards over the course of the season but I wouldn’t read too much into him being the leader through two weeks.
Sophomore wide receiver KJ Hamler is the obvious offensive threat Pitt fans will need to watch out for, but who are some of the other guys at skill positions Pitt fans should expect to be involved on offense?
Dylan: Pitt fans should be on the lookout for the Nittany Lions four running backs in Ricky Slade, Journey Brown, Devyn Ford, and Noah Cain. All four guys have the talent and potential to be the starting running back for the Nittany Lions and can break off for long runs. That being said, the offensive line has struggled in the run block this season, we’ll see if that continues into Saturday’s game. Other skill position players to watch out for include TE Pat Friermuth and WR Jahan Dotson. Both players had huge games against Buffalo and will once again be main targets for Sean Clifford on Saturday. Friermuth or “Moose” as he’s affectionally known around Happy Valley is arguably the best tight end in the country. He lead the team in touchdown receptions last year and will be fighting for that title again in 2019. Dotson had a huge breakout game last week with his first 100+ yard game as well as two touchdowns. One last guy to watch is wide receiver Justin Shorter. The redshirt freshman was the top wide receiver in the 2018 recruiting class but hasn’t had the chance to break out yet after an injury knocked him out for most of last season.
Penn State’s defense has been stout through 2 games, and looks to be a major strength of the team. Is there a particular unit that stands out, and are there any areas Penn State hasn’t done well so far on that side of the ball?
Dylan: The Nittany Lions defense has done pretty well through the first two weeks. Last week, their run defense was a bit weak, so that will be worth watching going into Saturday’s game. That being said, the one unit that does stand out on paper and should as the season goes on is the defensive line. The Nittany Lions lead the country last year in sacks per game and should be among the top in 2019 once again. That being said, the linebackers and secondary are very talented and dangerous as well.
I know most predict a pretty comfortable win for Penn State. What is your general prediction on how the game goes?
Dylan: I think this game will probably be rather close in the first half but I think Penn State’s overall talent and athleticism is going to show in the second half. A lot of it will depend on Pittsburgh’s ability to control the clock. If they can keep the time of possession in their favor by a wide margin, they’ll be in a good spot. Overall, I have Penn State winning this one and covering in the process, Penn State 45 – Pittsburgh 17.