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Monday Notebook: Pitt Week

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Fresh off of a dominant 52-0 win against Akron in its 2017 season opener, No. 6 Penn State will look to keep its momentum rolling, hosting Pittsburgh Saturday at Beaver Stadium.

Having officially turned its attention toward the Panthers, Penn State is set for its 98th meeting against, historically, one of its most frequent opponents, with an all-time series that dates back to 1893.

Spanning generations, the series crosses through the tenures of all 16 Penn State head football coaches, with nearly every true Nittany Lion fan able to recite their most memorable game at a mere mention of the two teams.

In the second of a four-game series spanning 2016-19, Pittsburgh will make its first trip to Happy Valley since 1999. In its most-played all-time series, Penn State has played just 23 games at home against Pitt, owning a 17-6 advantage. 

The Nittany Lions met yearly from 1997-00 prior to a 16-year break that ended with last year's matchup. Within the four-year span Penn State played two games at home against the Panthers, winning both, including a 20-17 win in a back-and-forth battle in Beaver Stadium Sept. 11, 1999. It was Travis Forney's 24-yard field goal that put Penn State ahead with less than 1:30 to play, but a stout defensive effort and a blocked Pitt 52-yard field goal attempt by former All-American LaVar Arrington with less than five seconds remaining secured the win.

Before diving into Pitt week, take a quick look back at a few final remaining notes from the Akron opener.

Something About Openers
It's perhaps a welcome coincidence but Penn State's Amani Oruwariye has now recorded an interception in each of the last two season openers for the Nittany Lions. Either way, Franklin and his staff were equally excited about Oruwariye this offseason, noting postgame that his confidence in Grant Haley, Christian Campbell and Oruwariye is right where it should be.

"I loved watching Amani on that interception because it's one thing to stay connected and keep tight coverage, but it's another thing to have the confidence to turn and find the ball and be comfortable doing it," Franklin said. That's a difficult skill to learn and I thought he did a great job with that." 

Mahon Returns
Sidelined with an injury for the final few games of the 2016 season, Penn State right guard Brendan Mahon reentered the starting lineup for the Akron opener. 

"Nothing feels better than being out here with this team and out here in front of all our home fans and being back again and starting a new season, coming out strong with a nice win over Akron," Mahon said postgame.

Mahon's veteran presence on the offensive line was certainly clear as he helped paved the way for running back Saquon Barkley's 11th 100-yard rushing game of his career, which including a pair of rushing touchdowns.

"I have a great group of guys around me," Mahon said. "The offensive line, they're great guys and they're willing to come to work every day and put in the time and effort to be the best and we want to be the Penn State Big Ten type of offensive line and I think today was our first step in doing that."

Penn State's consistent success throughout Saturday's opener meant more opportunities for the Nittany Lion staff to call on some newcomers for their first experiences in a game setting. 

In total, 13 Nittany Lion freshmen made their collegiate debuts, including 10 redshirts and three true freshmen. By position, that's nine on defense, three on offense and one specialist, with redshirt freshman kicker Alex Barbir entering for a pair of kickoffs.

Defensively, Penn State rotated in defensive ends Shane Simmons and Shaka Toney, as well as true freshman Yetur Gross-Matos. Defensive tackles Ellison Jordan, Daniel Joseph and Antonio Shelton also made appearances. Toney and Gross-Matos both registered a pair of tackles, with Toney adding a TFL and Gross-Matos adding a quarterback hurry late in the fourth quarter, forcing a Zips punt. In the secondary, Penn State saw true freshmen corners Tariq Castro-Fields and Lamont Wade as well as redshirt freshman Zech McPhearson.

Among all the new faces Franklin noted postgame that having the opportunity to rotate in Nittany Lions who have earned playing time as much as possible builds confidence in the locker room, alongside experience too.

"We want to play as many guys as we possibly can," Franklin said. "That's kind of our game plan. We want to be able to create depth and develop depth and the only way you do that is being able to play guys in the first half of games where it's legitimate plays, not end of the game garbage time." 

On the offensive side, Penn State saw redshirt freshmen offensive linemen Will Fries, Alex Gellerstedt and Michal Menet rotate in. All together, Penn State's offensive line did not allow a single sack in Saturday's opener - something the Nittany Lions did twice last year. Not only as it relates to the defensive line though, Franklin also mentioned postgame that the offensive line has seen just as dramatic of an increase in improvement since he and the staff have arrived in Happy Valley. 

Remember Last Year ...
Although not the ending the Nittany Lions had anticipated last year, this week's All-Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week, Saquon Barkley put on a resilient performance in last season's Pitt meeting, finishing with his first career five touchdown outing. With four rushing touchdowns and one receiving, Barkley's 30 points marked the most since Ki-Jana Carter's 30-point outing in 1994.

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