Penn State at Pittsburgh

The Sports Xchange

September 05, 2018 at 7:46 pm.

GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET
SITE: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pa.
TV: ABC
SERIES: Penn State leads 51-43-4. Penn State won 33-14 in 2017.
RANKINGS: Penn State No. 13

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Nittany Lions

–QB Trace McSorley has thrown a touchdown pass in 29 consecutive games and has established himself as one of the country’s best players in the clutch. Unflappable in nearly all situations, McSorley calmly replied to a reporter who asked him after Week 1 if he ever gets nervous: “No. Not really.”

–WR Juwan Johnson. McSorley’s final line would’ve been better had Johnson held on to a handful of early passes. Johnson finished with six catches for 67 yards against the Mountaineers, but his target share won’t likely decrease after just one game with a handful of drops.

–LB Jan Johnson played pretty good in his first start last week. The former walk-on made a few nice side-to-side plays chasing down ball carriers to keep Appalachian State’s strong running game mostly in check. Continued performances like this from Johnson will go a long way for a team with a relatively inexperienced front seven.

–S Nick Scott was the most noticeable Penn State defensive back helping out in run support last week. He will likely need to drop the hammer again as the Panthers like to run behind hard-charging fullback George Aston when they’re not going side-to-side.

Panthers

–RB Darrin Hall led Pitt in rushing last season, carrying 128 times for 628 yards and nine touchdowns. He carried only four times for 22 yards in the opener in a backfield in which carries could be distributed among a few players.

–WR Maurice Ffrench, a junior, opened Pitt’s season with a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Albany. Coach Pat Narduzzi gave Ffrench the bulk of the credit, considering he saw some blocking errors on the return. “I can’t tell you the blocking and the setup were exactly the way we want it to be,” he said. “I give Maurice a lot of credit for what he did on that play.”

–DT Keyshon Camp was credited with only three tackles in the opener against Albany, but two of them were sacks. The sophomore is competing with junior Amir Watts for the starting job.

–S Damar Hamlin, a junior, had a big interception last week, stopping Albany’s first drive with an interception at the Pitt 2 and returning it 79 yards. That was the longest interception return by a Pitt player since October 16, 2010, when Ricky Gary had an 80-yard return for a score at Syracuse. Hamlin will be patrolling for errant throws by Penn State QB Trace McSorley this week.

KEYS
TO THE GAME

Both Penn State’s James Franklin and Pittsburgh’s Pat Narduzzi agree that Saturday’s clash between Franklin’s 13th-ranked Nittany Lions (1-0) and Narduzzi’s unranked Panthers (1-0) is a big game.

But they think so for different reasons.

Kickoff at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field is at 8 p.m. ET with ABC to telecast the game nationally.

The foes from the Keystone State are meeting for the third time in three seasons after the series was renewed in 2016.

Franklin insists he views the game the same as any other. The importance for his team — which features 14 players on its roster from Western Pennsylvania — comes from the matchup being the next one on Penn State’s schedule, Franklin says.

“I hear people saying this is a big game, and anybody that says this isn’t a big game is kidding themselves,” Franklin said. “This is the biggest game in the world. This is the Super Bowl for us. It is the most important game on our schedule. Why? Because it’s the game we’re playing this week.

“Last week was the Super Bowl for us. It was the most important game in the universe. This week is a huge game for us. I’ve never denied that, from the very beginning.”

Narduzzi, meanwhile, is quicker to embrace the rivalry. The fourth-year Panthers coach stated the game is important to the city of Pittsburgh and stands out for his program.

“Anybody wants to argue and say this is no different than any other week. OK, it is,” Narduzzi said. “That’s a fact. If you want to ignore that, you can ignore it. It’s a big game.”

Penn State enters the game as the favorite, but the Nittany Lions have a lot of question marks after an unsettling performance in Week 1. Penn State pulled out a 45-38 win against Appalachian State in overtime at Beaver Stadium, needing a late touchdown to tie the game after coughing up a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter. The Nittany Lions dropped three spots in this week’s AP poll after the win.

Franklin said his inexperienced defense did a poor job of tackling against Appalachian State.

“It doesn’t take 23 years’ coaching experience to say we didn’t tackle well,” Franklin said. “I think that’s probably the biggest thing that stood out. Too many missed tackles.”

Penn State does have more experience on its offense, including a senior quarterback in Trace McSorley. A third-year starter, McSorley threw for 229 yards and a late touchdown against the Mountaineers last week.

He also ran the ball for 53 yards and two scores.

Penn State totaled 205 rushing yards in the comeback win. Miles Sanders was the team’s leading rusher with 19 carries for 91 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime.

Pitt was a 33-7 winner over Albany, an FCS program, in Week 1.

The Panthers, who went 5-7 last season, took the lead 12 seconds into the game when Maurice Ffrench returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown.

Making his second career start, Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett completed 16 of his 22 passes for 154 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in the victory.

Penn State and Pitt are meeting for the 99th time (Penn State leads 51-43-4) in a rivalry that dates back to 1893. This will be the first night game between the two opponents since 1987.

The teams did not face each other between 2001 and 2015 but are slated to meet again in the 2019 season at Penn State. There are no games scheduled between the schools after that.

“It’s been a rivalry for a long time,” Narduzzi said. “Rivalries are rivalries. Everybody’s got one. Who is it against? Maybe there’s two or three of them in your season. That’s what it is.”