Byline: Chris Logue and it is a good one…
It’s go time for another week, another opponent and worst of all, a whole new slew of athletic receivers, running backs, most of which I am sure can run the wheel-route, and a quarterback that can beat you in a myriad of ways. This could just as easily be time-stamped in 2016 heading into Death Valley and Clemson, but this year’s edition of that is in Happy Valley to take on the Nittany Lions.
While I would love to be the sole interpreter of Penn State this week, I also felt that it would be doing our readers an injustice. This edition of “Know Your Enemy” comes with a guest, Centre Daily Times’ Penn State beat writer, John McGonigal. John pulls no punches and lets it all fly which is why he fits the bill to be our guest this week.
John provided incredible feedback and you’ll notice it throughout our inside look at what our Panthers face this week in Centre County.
Last week, Penn State drubbed Akron 52-0 and did it in a multitude of ways. Whether it was breaking a long, very strong, streak of not having a return for a touchdown, intercepting Akron quarterback, Thomas Woodson or if it was quarterback Trace McSorley and his trusted back, Saquon Barkley, Penn State looked good. Very, very good at that. It’s no mystery that McSorley and Barkley will be the key drivers for PSU on offense, it goes back to the basics, deep in the trenches who kick-starts this offense.
“Outside of Barkley and McSorley, I think an underrated guy on this offense is center Connor McGovern. I could’ve gone with flashier picks like breakout wide receiver Juwan Johnson or tight end Mike Gesicki — who I think will lead the Nittany Lions in all receiving categories this year — but McGovern is a guy who guides the offense,” says McGonigal.
Like Pitt who has shifted and mixed the offensive line over the past two seasons, McGovern is amid transition himself, “The Penn State staff moved him to center in the offseason after the departure of senior Brian Gaia — the Nittany Lions’ lone loss from the o-line — and McGovern has lived up to all expectations so far, being more vocal and impressing against Akron.”
Reed and I exchanged emails and we both had the same feel that a lot of what Penn State wants to do and should succeed in doing is planting roots in the trenches and making it their own, and it seems as though McGovern is sturdy in that task where “[McGovern] had a lot to do with that, and the lineman will play a key role in the Pitt game.”
How big of a task do the Panthers have this week on the defense? Look for yourself at PSU’s last game’s offensive stats:
McSorley and Barkley combined for 220 yards on the ground and three touchdowns, no matter who runs it, the line must be sturdy and headed by a damn good center. They all fit the description.
Does it end there for Penn State? Far from it as John mentioned….
“Offensively, I really think the Nittany Lions hold an advantage in every aspect. McSorley, with his talented wideouts, could have a field day tearing through Pitt’s battered secondary.
After the Youngstown State game, it’s apparent the Panthers can’t cover a wheel route, so Barkley could feast on that — and that’s not even considering what he could do in the run game with an improved offensive line. It’s tough to give any edge to Panthers’ defense after losing so many key guys from last year’s victory,”
He’s not wrong and the Pitt defense was far from dispelling that notion against a less than FBS team last week. Reed and I both initially said this was going to be a difficult task in the Penguins, while Reed held firm, and correctly predicted the score, I loosened my stronghold on pessimism and took Pitt by a wider margin than seven.
The part of the game that places fear in myself, and I would imagine would be the same across the Pitt fandom zone, is the ability of McSorley to tuck-and-run. We know Pitt is going to place extra emphasis on shrinking the pocket and that will start from the outside with Allen Edwards and Dewayne Hendrix(who was injured for last year’s game), but how will the Pitt linebackers be able to adjust and keep an eye in the backfield for McSorley to take off? Pitt can’t afford to have Brightwell on a QB-spy the entire afternoon, it’ll have to be a calculated attack coordinated by Josh Conklin, Pat Narduzzi and Rob Harley.
“Now, it’s hard to say how the offense will be balanced. Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead isn’t a guy who approaches game week by saying, “Ok, we want a 50-50 split between the passing game or running game, or a 60-40 split.” He adapts his play-calls based on the defensive look. But to answer your question, I think the balance will be fine with both McSorley and Barkley having big days through the air and on the ground, respectively.”
Two things must happen to re-instill faith in the Pitt fan-base, not only for this game, but the season and especially the week after. First, Narduzzi should be telling the truth in “his guys” taking their foot off the gas to face adversity. Second, the defense must be good enough in the technical side of things to recover from last week to provide results when the pedal is to the medal, for as cliché as that might be.
While it all looks gloomy from the presentation so far and respectfully, it probably should, Pitt still presents a few tough tasks that McGonigal feels should be closely watched.
“The only thing I could see going in Pitt’s favor on Saturday is Jester Weah and Quadree Henderson. Weah’s 6-foot-4 size caused problems for opponents in 2016, and Henderson’s speed is a nightmare to deal with. Penn State’s players said all this week they’re preparing for those two Panthers. But even with all the prep in the world, those are two guys who can hurt the Nittany Lions.”
In the next snippet from the interview, there is confidence and scarcity. Interpret for yourselves and comment on each:
“Quadree Henderson has to go off with a special teams touchdown or two, and Max Browne needs to find his high school form if the Panthers are going to win. Henderson ripped an 84-yard kickoff return in last year’s 42-39 matchup, and he’s a problem for every opponent. He needs to make a major impact. And Browne, a former five-star recruit, has the talent in there somewhere.”
Against YSU, Pitt really sheltered themselves from any possible play identification in week two, or in the prep leading up to week two. The 2016 opening showcase provided a Natural Light offense, but for a play on all meme’s online, Shawn Watson said, “Hold My Beer,” while he outclassed the previous season’s opener by running what seemed to be only five plays. Running back dive (sometimes stretched to the outside), jet-sweep, running-back flat, tight end seam, and one blown up play in the backfield.
Watson could be the greatest X-factor for Pitt his weekend, however. Last season, as a member of the Indiana coaching staff as the QB leader, Watson saw Penn State, too, despite being in a 45-31 defeat. His quarterback, Richard Lagow, had an extremely efficient day passing for 292 yards and two touchdowns without surrendering the ball to the PSU defense.
Can he have the same effect on Max Browne, our guest thinks it’s a 50/50 proposition for this game, especially.
“If Pitt offensive coordinator Shawn Watson can get him playing to his full potential, Saturday has a chance to be respectable. And if Penn State wins, I don’t know if it’s anything that Pitt does wrong — the Nittany Lions are just more talented in pretty much every facet of the game.”
Going into last seasons match-up, you could easily say a coin flip could determine the outcome of the game, that’s not the narrative for this seasons edition. You’d be a fool to think otherwise.
Quite possibly the biggest match-up of the two schools is Pat Narduzzi vs. James Franklin. It’s been well reported this week of the direction Narduzzi is taking this week. Silence is golden, don’t bother my players, don’t provide distractions – while providing a distraction. You can’t argue with success, being 1-0 with that philosophy, I suppose.
On the other end of the spectrum is James Franklin. Is it all smokescreen in his taking it as just another week, or is it legitimate?
“Franklin understands it’s an important week, for sure; all he has to do is go on Twitter to find that out. But the way he’s wired and the way he approaches running a program, he believes the Pitt game is “just another game” because it’s the next game on the schedule. I’m not inside his mind and can’t say if he does or doesn’t truly believe it’s a rivalry game. But that’s approach he’s always had, so I’m not one to question whether it’s genuine.”
For as much as I want to believe “it’s just another game” for Franklin and his team, I just don’t. He knows the messages he will receive if he goes 0-2 against the Panthers in the reborn series. Losing to Pitt has actually been extremely generous to Franklin who has seen an up-tick in recruiting and also a Big-however many Championship. Nonetheless, Franklin has his players wired into robotically downplaying the importance of this game. We shall see.
In the end, it is just a single game and a single tally mark on this season in one form or the other. In a season that I think is extremely difficult to gain traction and win the ACC, this game could be a season-maker. It’s the exact equivalent of Pitt vs West Virginia or Pitt vs. Clemson. We’ve seen some crazy things happen and maybe, just maybe, our Panthers can pull another upset. It’s not out of Narduzzi’s playing cards completely.
John McGonigal: “I think Penn State covers the 21-point spread safety. My prediction for the game is Penn State winning 42-13. I wouldn’t be surprised if that margin of victory is larger, either. The Nittany Lions are going to want to leave no doubt after last season’s loss, and given the difference in talent, I’d bet that this one gets out of hand.”
Chris Logue: Everything suggests Penn State should win this game, after all they are ranked fourth in the country, trailing perennial powers. I agree and don’t think they have a hiccup this season. Penn State takes it 38-17.
Reed Kohberger: I’ll parrot what these two writers feel. I believe the 1st quarter of the game will give Pitt fans hope that we will keep it close enough to make it a game in the 4th quarter and that will be on the strength of a good kickoff return or two by Henderson to put us in short field position to score 7 to 10 points rather quickly.
After that though Penn State’s talent is going to steadily score points and we won’t be able to answer. The real key is going to be Penn State’s much deeper and more talented bench, based on their last three recruiting classes that were 21st, 15th and 24th nationally. That is going to grind our guys down. They have real talent in-hand after their starting 22 players – we do not.
Here is a scary fact – PSU has 16 starters returning from their 11-3 season of 2016. Phil Steele rated them #81 in ‘experience’ last season – this year he jumped them up to #12!
He also had Pitt at experience level #33 in 15, up to # 7 last season and now we drop, dramatically, to #123 (out of #128). That speaks volumes to me as you all know I value experience as much as raw talent, and I think it shows up Big Time in PSU’s “Lost Memories Stadium” tomorrow.
Our only chance is if fine RB Saquon Barkley gets taken out of the game early on somehow. If you remember we held him somewhat in check last year… except for those pesky four TDs he scored…
Remember that Barkley is 5’11” and 228 pounds – he’s no lightweight scatter back but a strong, fast and shifty runner who gets the ball forward every play almost. If he gets anywhere near ½ the YPC average he had against Akron last week – which would shake out to be 6.2 ypc – then it’s a bloodbath for Pitt.
They will beat us up in the trenches, run over us and have a field day in the air – but we get a pick or two for feel-good status.
Browne has to play 180° differently if we want to have a chance here. Another key for Saturday is how well Browne is protected by out OL. I think it falters again and so we’ll see some sacks allowed and INTs unlike last game.
So the 2nd half will be all PSU and they will win going away – Penn State 41- Pitt 21. I do not think Franklin runs up the score if they are well in front toward the end of the game… I also hope Narduzzi sits Browne down if the game is out of hand and gets DiNucci some series.
Let’s hear your predictions also readers – who, what, why… and;
Hail To Pitt !!