Many words have been said and written in the lead-up to the 100th and final scheduled game between the Keystone State’s two Power Five football teams. All that’s left is the actual play on the field, when Pitt and Penn State kickoff at noon on Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
“There’s no task that's easy when you go out there,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said this week.
Offensively, the Panthers will need to take a step forward. The unit struggled for most of the game against Virginia on Aug. 31, but had a better showing this past week against Ohio, despite putting only 20 points on the board. Narduzzi admitted after the game that the Panthers had been a little conservative in the second half against the Bobcats.
They won’t have the luxury of being conservative on offense this week, as the Panthers face a fierce front seven.
“Their front seven is as good as you're going to see in the country,” Narduzzi said.
Anchored by defensive ends Yetur Gross-Matos and Shaka Toney, who have 4.5 sacks between them in the first two games, Penn State’s defensive line will be a formidable challenge for Pitt’s offensive line. The offensive line had a rough outing against a solid Virginia defense, as quarterback Kenny Pickett was sacked four times and faced constant pressure from the Cavaliers.
“We gave up 14 pressures as an offensive line,” center Jimmy Morrissey said last week. “When you get hit 14 times, I don’t blame (Pickett) for wanting to scramble. He’s getting hit that many times, what quarterback in the country can you ask to be confident in their O-line after that performance? It was more on us. We should’ve gotten more heat than he did.”
Narduzzi reiterated on Thursday one of his steadfast beliefs: The game is won in the trenches.
“It’s going to be a game where the lines have to play well,” Narduzzi said. “We always talk about up front – O-line and D-line. It’s going to be a challenge, period.
“That’s where the matchup’s going to be. You got to win up front to win the football game, I have no question about that. So we’re gonna have to win that battle.”
The Panthers will have to avoid beating themselves; last season the offensive line allowed four sacks of Pickett against the Nittany Lions. At halftime of last year’s game, Pitt trailed Penn State 14-6 but the game quickly got out of hand. The Panthers were unable to do much offensively, giving their defense short fields to defend and committing far too many penalties.
Against Ohio a week ago, the Panthers were penalized ten times for 75 yards, including four false starts and one delay of game.
“There’s five illegal procedures, that's 25 yards, OK,” Narduzzi said this week. “They're drive killers.
“It leads to bad offense or bad defense.”
If the Panthers are to have any chance of upsetting the No. 13 team in the country, they’ll have to keep penalties to a minimum.
They’ll also have to limit what quarterback Sean Clifford is able to do. Clifford currently leads the Nittany Lions in rushing yards, and has thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions.
Pitt’s defense will have to get pressure on Clifford. The unit has been successful at getting pressure on the two dual-threat quarterbacks its faced so far this year, sacking Virginia’s Bryce Perkins and Ohio’s Nathan Rourke a total of nine times as well as limiting what each was able to do in the run game.
Narduzzi would certainly like for his team to put on a show in the final matchup against Penn State, but he’s not shedding a tear for the series ending.
“I’m not gonna be sad, I’m not gonna cry,” Narduzzi said. “It’s what it is. It’s a shame, but we got Penn State right now, that’s all I’m worried about. I’m not worried about if we’re gonna play them in ten years.
Despite his acknowledgment that nothing is easy when playing at State College, Narduzzi believes his team will be able to treat it like any other game.
“Once the first play’s over with, it’s just like playing anywhere else,” Narduzzi said. “I mean, it’s what it is; it’s a football game.
“Whether you’ve coached in it, played in it, it’s one play you might nervous; then it’s like let’s go."