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Latest Pitt-Penn State installment has the Panthers facing an uphill battle

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

The latest iteration of the Pitt football team is fresh off a win against Ohio but now will face one of its toughest tests of the season with a game this weekend against Top 15 ranked Penn State.

The game is, of course, the latest installment in the long rivalry that has been interrupted, started again, and soon to be discontinued yet again. And unlike the last time the series ended, Pitt will face a much stiffer challenge in trying to win the final game.

The Panthers enter the game as a heavy underdog with Penn State favored by 17 points as of Sunday night. And if we’re being fair here, even that number may be a tad light based on past history and, more importantly, on what the teams have looked like through two games. There is surely a chance the Panthers keep it closer (I’ll get to that in a bit) — but also a chance it spirals out of control, as it did last season.

See, last year, Pitt was obliterated at home, losing 51-6 in a decidedly lopsided game, despite a spread of less than a touchdown. While it is true the Panthers were competitive in the first half, trailing only 14-6 at the break, mistakes and poor play in the second half led to an ugly loss. And in the season before, the Panthers were handed a 19-point loss at Penn State. The Panthers did, of course, win the much-anticipated 2016 matchup, but that team was head coach Pat Narduzzi’s finest and also defeated eventual National Champion Clemson on the road in a monumental upset. That, of the three games, is the outlier for how the series has gone.

This season, the Panthers have had trouble scoring points. Things are still early, of course, but the Panthers have managed only 34 total points with a loss to Virginia and a win against Ohio to show for it. The unit certainly looked better this weekend but doing that against a MAC team is not the same as doing it against a Top 25 program on the road.

Penn State, meanwhile, has rolled to a 79-7 win against Idaho and a 45-13 victory against Buffalo. The obvious point here is that the Nittany Lions have not faced a quality opponent yet as Pitt did in Virginia. However, scoring 124 points in only two games against anyone is an eye opener, to some degree. Penn State has looked really sharp offensively and, as Pitt can attest to after the Ohio game, running up points even against weaker foes is no guarantee.

Offensively, Penn State looks to have another strong quarterback in sophomore Sean Clifford. Clifford has been nearly flawless to date, throwing for six touchdowns to no interceptions, averaging about 280 passing yards per game. At receiver, the Nittany Lions have familiar threat, KJ Hamler. However, Clifford has several other weapons at his disposal, including tight end Pat Freiermuth, who actually leads the team in receptions (nine). Each of those players, including receiver Jahan Dotson, have all caught two touchdown passes each.

The Nittany Lions have also put together a balanced ground attack with numerous players factoring in. Some of that is likely due to playing reserves in lopsided contests, but five running backs have already gotten more than five carries with Devyn Ford and his 107 yards leading the way. The team’s best rusher, by a nose, has actually been Clifford, who has managed 108 yards on the season and can cause problems with his mobility. Simply put, Penn State has a number of guys capable of making plays on offense.

Just as impressive as the offense has been the defense. To date, Penn State has given up only 20 points with opponents finding it difficult to score. Senior cornerback John Reid has been a difference maker with two interceptions (and a touchdown) to go along with a sack and two pass breakups. As a whole, the defense has eight sacks on the year.

Given all of that, what are Pitt’s chances here? More specifically, how can they stay in the game?

The best hope, of course, will be the defense. I don’t expect the Panthers’ offense to put a bunch of points on the board given what we’ve seen from the unit and given what Penn State has done defensively. This could be a perfect storm of sorts with Pitt finding it very difficult to get on the scoreboard.

But the Panthers’ defense has been solid with playmakers around. The unit looked nearly perfect this past weekend against Ohio and, while giving up 30 points to Virginia, we know that total was a bit skewed as the Cavaliers had several short fields to work with.

The run defense has been, statistically, stronger than Penn State’s. Pitt ranks 23rd in the nation, allowing only 82 yards per game with the Nittany Lions not far behind at No. 31, giving up 94 yards per contest. That could be, in part, because Penn State opponents have been forced to play catchup and, presumably, throw quite a bit. However, the Panthers’ pass defense has been slightly better, too, allowing 179 yards per game (No. 38 in the nation) to Penn State’s 193 yards per game (No. 53).

Even having played better competition to date, I’m not sure we can make the assumption that Pitt’s defense is better. But in terms of ‘making Pitt’s case,’ it’s clear that their best chance for a close contest is to put the game in the hands of that unit as opposed to relying on the offense.

So does that necessarily translate into putting Penn State on upset alert? Could I see a scenario where Pitt’s defense plays well and keeps Penn State to a lower-than-expected point total? Sure. But given what Penn State’s own defense has done, given that it’s a road game, and given that the Panthers have quite a few kinks to work out offensively — well, the road team clearly has their work cut out for them in this one.

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