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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Fourth-ranked Penn State football (1-0, 0-0 B1G) returns to Beaver Stadium Saturday, hosting Pittsburgh (1-0, 0-0 ACC) in the Keystone Classic presented by Peoples Natural Gas.
In the 98th meeting between the two programs, both the Nittany Lions and the Panthers enter the matchup coming off of season-opening wins.
After executing what Penn State head coach James Franklin deemed perhaps the most complete game of his tenure, the Nittany Lions will look to build on the consistency. Scoring at least 35 points in each of the last eight consecutive games, Penn State owns the longest active streak among Power 5 teams, with an explosive offense loaded with options.
Penn State moved up to two spots in both the Amway Coaches and AP Polls this week to No. 4 in the standings, with Nittany Lion running back Saquon Barkley earning Rose Bowl Game Big Ten Player of the Week honors in addition to co-offensive player of the week accolades from the conference following his 11th-career 100-yard rushing performance.
The newly reloaded Nittany Lion defense proved disruptive in its third consecutive yearly shut out, with a variety of new faces rotating in to create the chaos. Earning the staff's defensive player of the week pick was junior defensive end Ryan Buchholz, who rotated in early to finish with a career-high four tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one sack and a forced fumble.
Among the success in the season-opener though, Franklin noted early this week that there's still a bit more in the tank.
Looking at Pittsburgh, the Panthers captured a 28-21 OT victory in their 2017 season opener last week, outlasting Youngstown State in Heinz Field.
"Coach Narduzzi does a really good job and we have a lot of respect for him and their program," Franklin said. "They present a very challenging offense. Probably more similar to a Stanford or Michigan State style of offense. Multiple personnel groups, multiple formations, unbalanced, shifts, motions, trades. I think that's something that we're going to spend a lot of time working on this week defensively. They play a base 4-3 defense and will use a lot of nickel, and they'll go with their three-down front, as well. [They are] Very well-coached, play hard, physical and run to the ball."
Saturday's 3:30 p.m. matchup will broadcast live on ABC with Joe Tessitore (pxp), former Penn State national champion quarterback Todd Blackledge (analyst) and Holly Rowe (sideline) on the call.
What To Watch For - Penn State
1. Starting Fast,
Yes, this was item number one in last week's game day preview, but the Akron opener juxtaposed with last year's Pitt game only adds importance. Although it's in the past, Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley noted that the slow start against the Panthers last year was crushing. Against the Zips, it was DeAndre Thompkins' 61-yard punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter that sparked the Nittany Lions early, as Penn State entered halftime with a 35-0 lead for the first time since 2009.
"I think that's something that sticks out is if you can get a fast start, come out, be productive, get points on the board as an offense, force three-and-outs and turnovers and chaos on the defensive side of the ball, then you'll be much better off throughout the rest of the game and give yourself a much better chance," McSorley said.
2. The Game Wrecker
Franklin noted that Pittsburgh All-American return specialist Quadree Henderson is a top priority for the Nittany Lions in the game plan. With a school-record three kickoff return touchdowns last year, Henderson closed out the season ranking second 11th nationally and second in the ACC with an average 160.23 all-purpose yards per game. In Pitt's opener, Henderson logged 155 all-purpose yards, rushing for 77 and picking up 71 on kickoff returns, in addition to seven receiving.
As Franklin noted early this week though, kicker Tyler Davis and punter Blake Gillikin will be key in neutralizing Henderson's impact, with precision in kick location as well as distance and hang time of the utmost importance.
3. Better on Third Down
It has been a point of emphasis for the Nittany Lions for a while, but it was perhaps one of only a few things that Franklin noted Penn State would need to improve.
"That is still an area that we need to get better in," Franklin said early last week. "We were 33 percent on 3rd down and on 4th down we were 50 percent."
What To Watch For - Pittsburgh
1. Jester Weah
Wide receiver Jester Weah clinched the win in Pittsburgh's opener against Youngstown State, grabbing an 11-yard touchdown catch on his only reception for the Panthers. A top returning receiver, Weah averaged more than 20 yards per catch (24.2) in 2016, leading the team in catches (36), receiving yards (870) and touchdown receptions (10) last year.
2. Hard-Nosed Defense
Yesterday Penn State offensive line coach Matt Limegrover noted that Narduzzi defenses are always well coached. Franklin used hard-nosed and physical to describe a Panther defense that returns after allowing 119.6 yards per game in 2016.
"The one thing about them is, they have a lot of new faces, especially in the front seven," Limegrover said. "They're not going to disguise, they're not going to show, they're not going to change significantly from week to week, but what they do, they're about as good in the country from a technique and an assignment standpoint as anybody you'll find. What they do, is they basically say we're going to play our defense really well and our scheme really well and you've got to play really well in what you do to beat us. That's what it comes down to."
3. Qadree Ollison
The Pittsburgh rushing attack totaled 208 rushing yards in the win against Youngstown State, led by a 91-yard performance by running back Qadree Ollison. In 2016, Pittsburgh averaged 225.1 rushing yards per game, which ranked third in the ACC and 28th nationally.
The Final Word -
Come Saturday, Pittsburgh will make its first trip to Beaver Stadium in nearly 20 years, having last visited in 1999, when Penn State claimed a 20-17 win in the final seconds of regulation. Although the Nittany Lions fell short in last year's comeback attempt at Heinz Field, Penn State has won each of its last four games against the Panthers at home, leading the all-time series 17-6 as the longstanding and historic series between the two teams meets in the second of a four-year agreement, set to conclude in 2019.