Penn State has achieved its highest ranking in the coaches poll since 2008 and the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions have plenty of incentive entering a matchup at home with rival Pittsburgh on Saturday. The rivalry, which began in 1893, was rekindled last year for the first time since 2000 and it resulted in a thrilling 42-39 win for the Panthers.
That was part of a 2-2 start for an unranked Penn State team, but the tables have turned dramatically since then and coach James Franklin’s squad is riding high after a 52-0 rout of Akron to begin its campaign, although he insists on treating the Pitt game like any other. “I guess what I don’t understand is, are we supposed to prepare harder this week than we did last week?” Franklin told reporters who pressed him on the importance of the rivalry. “I mean, if we didn’t play well and I said, ‘Well, yeah, we didn’t prepare as hard this week because we’ve got this game next week that’s a big game,’ I don’t get it.” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi, whose team squeaked past FCS squad Youngstown State in overtime last week, has taken a different approach and is keeping his players from speaking with the media, telling reporters Monday that he wanted his team “locked in” for the rivalry game. Perhaps they were focused on the Nittany Lions too early, giving up 21 unanswered second-half points to the Penguins before surviving 28-21 on an end-zone interception in the extra session.
TV: 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC. LINE: Penn State -21
ABOUT PITT (1-0): The Panthers rolled up 341 yards on the ground against the Nittany Lions last year and they would love a similar effort to keep the ball away from Penn State’s explosive offense. Qadree Ollison (91 yards against Youngstown State) and Quadree Henderson (77 yards on nine carries) paced a 208-yard attack in the season opener, but most of it came in the first half and the support began to dry up, making things tougher for quarterback Max Browne (17-for-24, 140 yards, one TD). “Just a lack of focus, and when you start to feel good about yourself, you think, oh, this is easy, and you might not even know it,” Narduzzi said of the second-half swoon. “But it happens.”
ABOUT PENN STATE (1-0): Saquon Barkley found the end zone five times against the Panthers in 2016 so he’s certainly on their radar, but the dynamic junior running back may pose an even bigger threat in the rematch. Barkley ran for 172 yards - 80 of them on a highlight-reel scamper in the second quarter that led to a 21-0 lead - and two TDs in the rout of Akron, providing a nice complement to another solid effort by quarterback Trace McSorley, who threw for 280 yards and two scores. Tight end Mike Gesicki had both TD receptions from McSorley and has scored in four straight games dating to last season.
1. Penn State has a 50-43-4 advantage in the series, including 17-6 at home.
2. Henderson became the second Panther ever to record at least 2,000 all-purpose yards in a season in 2016 and he had 155 (77 rushing, 71 on kickoff returns and seven receiving) against the Penguins.
3. McSorley needs 341 passing yards to move ahead of Wally Richardson and into 10th place on Penn State’s all-time list.
PREDICTION: Penn State 45, Pittsburgh 17