Penn State Football: Keys to the Game at Pittsburgh

Sep 3, 2016; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin congratulates defensive end Shareef Miller (48) following a sack against Kent State Golden Flashes quarterback Justin Agner (not pictured) during the third quarter at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Kent State 33-13. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O
Sep 3, 2016; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin congratulates defensive end Shareef Miller (48) following a sack against Kent State Golden Flashes quarterback Justin Agner (not pictured) during the third quarter at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Kent State 33-13. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O /
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On Saturday, Penn State renews it’s cross-state rivalry with the Pittsburgh Panthers.  The game marks the first time the two teams have met on the gridiron since 2000.  So, what are the keys to a Nittany Lions victory?

If you are a college football fan and have not been living under a rock, you know that this weekend renews one of the Pennsylvania’s best rivalries – Penn State vs Pitt.

Penn State travels to Heinz Field to battle their in-state foes for state bragging rights.  State supremacy is nice little carrot to dangle for current players, but what about uncommitted recruits?  Both Penn State head coach James Franklin and Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi know that a win on Saturday can go a long way on the recruiting trail.

Despite what the players are saying, this game has been circled on their calendars for months maybe even years ago.  During the player portion of Tuesday’s media day, junior wide receiver Chris Godwin addressed the history of the Penn State – Pitt series while trying to maintain a level focus.

"It (the Penn State – Pitt game) was just a regular talk explaining everything; explaining the rivalry and history behind it. But outside of that we treat it as a normal game because it’s our next game on the schedule and now it’s our most important game. – Chris Godwin"

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Junior Grant Haley, whose mom was a Penn State track & field athlete but met Grant’s father while both were at Pitt’s medical school, had more to deal with than some on his team…tickets! Haley’s family still resides in the Pittsburgh area, and he said he expects “probably about a dozen, a good amount” for Saturday’s contest.

Both Godwin and Haley were toddlers the last time these two teams met, but the rivalry was not lost on either of them.  While they may have been too young to truly know about previous contests they are however, excited to be part of the new rivalry.

Both teams secured opening week victories, but they still left a large number of questions that need to be answered.  The team with the best solutions will likely come away victorious and gain bragging rights.

So, how does Penn State claim victory on Saturday?

Game Keys:

1. Get penetration from the defensive front and make the initial tackle.  Last week, the initial wave of Penn State defenders missed too many tackles against Kent State.  If the Nittany Lion defenders fail to wrap up this week, bruising Pitt running back James Conner will make them pay.  Pitt’s offensive line struggled last week with the communication and continuity.  Meanwhile, Penn State’s defensive front dominated the second half against Kent State.  The Lions need to continue the momentum this week.  Keeping Conner in check must be a top priority for the Lions defense.

2.  Special Teams needs to be…Special!  Against Kent State, the Penn State kicking game was on point.  Freshman Blake Gillikin punted the football six times for a 47 yard average.  Many of his kicks flipped the field position in the Nittany Lions’ favor.  Along with Gillikin, placekicker Tyler Davis made both of his field goals and all three of his extra points.

While the kicking game last week was a plus for Penn State, the return game lacked a game-changing punch.  Pitt’s dynamic game-changer is sophomore Quadree Henderson.  In fact, Henderson took a kickoff to the house against Villanova last weekend.  His explosive talent is something Penn State must contain.

3.  Take advantage of single coverage on the receivers.  Arguably the best trio of wide receivers in the Big Ten resides in Happy Valley.   Against Kent State, Chris Godwin torched the Golden Flashes for seven catches and 67 yards.  Saeed Blacknall posted two receptions for 24 yards and DaeSean Hamilton made a tremendous touchdown grab.  With Saquon Barkley in the backfield and opposing defenses keying on stopping him, Penn State must take advantage of the single coverage on the outside.  Look for Penn State to probe the Panthers’ secondary with deep passes to the wide receivers and seam passes to tight end Mike Gesicki.

4.  Tempo, tempo, tempo.  All summer in Happy Valley, ‘tempo’ is a word that has been pitched around like wildfire.  Against Kent State, the Lions did not huddle, but they were methodical enough to use most of the play clock.  Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead indicated the Lions could use four different styles of tempo.  The Lions could go anywhere from a rapid two-minute drill to a clock-control game management style.  My sense is Penn State was somewhere in the middle against Kent State.  This week, look for Penn State to open the playbook a little more. Expect the Lions to use more up-tempo play calling and get more sub-packages of players into the game.