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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.
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Offensive line coach Matt Limegrover joined the Penn State weekly assistant coaches conference call this afternoon to talk Pittsburgh and the current state of the offensive line.
Fourth-ranked Penn State is set to host the Panthers Saturday at Beaver Stadium in a 3:30 p.m. kickoff, broadcasting live on ABC.
Listen in and catch up on a few notes from Limegrover's Q&A session.
A Seasoned Group
Simply having a group of seasoned student-athletes is exactly what Limegrover likes most about the offensive line right now.
"Even our young guys," Limegrover said. "Ryan Bates is a veteran now, he started every game last year. Connor McGovern as a true freshman last year wasn't even in the starting lineup for this game last year, the experience he has gained. Steve Gonzalez, people don't realize that Gonzalez and Chasz Wright, going into last year's fall camp were both listed at three. I think just the experience in big games and what it takes to prepare each week."
Looking at the Panther
It's perhaps the seventh time Limegrover has been in position to take a look at a Pat Narduzzi defense, with past Big Ten stops connecting the two. For Limegrover though, the one thing he has always known and respected about a Narduzzi-led or influenced defense, is that they are always well coached.
"They don't do a ton of things, but what they do is - it's kind of the old line, I think it was Bruce Lee who said, I don't fear the man who practices 10,000 kicks once, I fear the man who practices one kick 10,000 times," Limegrover said. "That's kind of the way they are."
First Time Out
Of the 13 freshmen (10 redshirts, 3 true) to take the field in their first collegiate debut Saturday, all three redshirt freshmen on the offensive side of the ball were offensive linemen. With varying levels of experience during their redshirt year, Limegrover noted that Will Fries was perhaps the most familiar on the field, followed by Michal Menet, with Alex Gellerstedt entering a whole new experience.
"I think with Will [Fries] and to a little bit of a lesser extent with Michael [Menet], because of the experience they had last year, traveling each week and for the most part being with the two deep and working what we were doing each week to prepare for the opponent, I think that gave them a leg up even though that was their first game experience," Limegrover said.
Earlier this week Franklin noted that he was initially a bit uneasy when McGovern made the move to center, mentioning he was unsure how a normally more reserved individual would handle a more vocal responsibility.
"I think as with anything, confidence is a great thing, it will buoy you, it will always you to get out of your comfort zone the more comfortable you feel," Limegrover said. "I think that's where Connor is right now as opposed to really at any point last year. He kind of had a kid brother complex last year, Brian [Gaia] kind of took it upon himself to lead Connor around last year, make sure he was in the right spots, doing the right things and I think Connor feels really comfortable with his role now. He doesn't have to be the vocal leader of that group, having guys like Brendan Mahon and Andrew Nelson in the room, they are the vocal leaders being the older guys. It's now more of an even plane with Connor."
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State head coach James Franklin met with members of the media Wednesday evening at the Lasch Football Building, joined by defensive lineman Ryan Buchholz for a final preview before Saturday's Pitt matchup.
The Nittany Lions and the Panthers are set for a 3:30 p.m. matchup live on ABC. Check out a few updates from the media sessions as game day prep progresses in Happy Valley.
Franklin noted that the Nittany Lions have entered week two with a business-like approach, demonstrating focus in the early part of the week. Although he'd like to see a bit of an increase in energy, it's not something holding the team back on film.
"We're very focused, we're very locked in, very business-like," Franklin said. "I thought today was better. I thought there was more energy, there was more juice, more emotion."
Franklin is pleased with the progress Connor McGovern has made since he arrived on campus, not only as it relates to growing into his role at center, but his approach to putting on smart weight too.
"He's more confident, he understands defenses more," Franklin said. "In high school you don't really see a whole lot, especially the type of offense that he ran. I think that his biggest improvement is in pass protection, he probably did it more in one game here than in his entire high school career."
Buchholz: He reminds me
a lot of Carl Nassib
Penn State true freshman defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos has been impressing the Nittany Lion staff since he arrived on campus, even seeing his first collegiate action in the Akron opener. For Buchholz, it's the mental aspect of Gross-Matos' progress that has him impressed.
"I would say it's more mental than physical, but he has done as good as you can as a true freshman," Buchholz said. "He has the physical characteristics obviously, he's huge, he reminds me a lot of Carl Nassib to be honest. He's starting to get everything down and starting to get it."
Week One Takeaways
For Buccholz his week one takeaways focused on the entire Nittany Lion defense, as he noted Penn State's play-making ability as a key week one factor in the win.
"From the d-backs to the d-line, we all came off the ball fast and made plays," Buccholz said. "A bunch of times a play would go the other way and I'd see Cam Brown or Manny [Bowen] chase it down and make a big TFL so the whole defense as a group was running to the ball and making plays."
By Greg Campbell, Penn State Strategic Communications
On page 95 of the 2017 Penn State Football Yearbook, senior Mike Gesicki lists four hobbies. One is playing sports, another is going to the beach. When asked about the latter of those hobbies, Gesicki smiles, laughs and simply states, "That will forever be who I am."
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Per the usual, Penn State Football head coach James Franklin met with members of the media for his weekly press conference Tuesday afternoon. Quarterback Trace McSorley and safety Troy Apke also joined Franklin for a pair of sessions with the media.
In his opening remarks, Franklin announced staff player of the week picks went to the entire offensive line, defensive end Ryan Buchholz and DeAndre Thompkins on special teams for their performances in the Akron opener.
Among early takeaways, Franklin noted that he and the staff were pleased with Penn State's effort and ability to execute - even in the wake of some typical uncertainty with the scope of a season opener.
The Game Wrecker
Franklin noted the he and the staff were particularly keyed in on the Pitt special teams unit, specifically naming All-American return specialist Quadree Henderson as a unique piece of the group.
"He's the guy you go into the game and you say who's the guy that can be a game changer or a game wrecker, however you want to describe it," Franklin said. "He's that guy. So we have to have a plan for him to try to limit the impact that he'll have in this game."
In 2016, Henderson led the nation with a school-record three kickoff return touchdowns, also adding a punt return for a score last year.
Apke has a few unique family connections with both of his parents former student-athletes at Pittsburgh, his dad a linebacker on the football team and his mother on the track and field team. Although too young to attend a game, he does have a few memories of some Penn State, Pittsburgh history from his dad.
"It's kind of funny, my dad used to say every time he walks on this field for a photo shoot or media day, he tells me his blood is still on the ground because of when they played Penn State.
It's no secret that linebacker Jason Cabinda is among the most respected Nittany Lion leaders on the team. As Franklin noted, Cabinda's family foundation in the importance of education also makes him just as strong of a leader in the classroom.
"He's an active listener," Franklin said. "He's an active learner. He's on the edge of his seat. He's nodding his head. He's got great eye contact, and he's the guy that you feel really strong is going and reinforcing in the locker room and Saturday night what the young guys should be doing, as well."
When it comes to leaving behind his legacy after Penn State, Franklin said Cabinda is often one to reference modeling his approach to that of former Nittany Lion Mike Hull.
"I think he left an impact to Jason, and I think Jason is going to end up leaving an impact with the young guys that we've got in our program now, leaving a legacy that guys say, well, this is how Jason did it when he was here," Franklin said. "I'm very pleased with him. "The last cherry on top is making sure that he leaves in December with his degree in economics."
McSorley described Saquon Barkley's 80-yard run from Saturday's Akron game as if he was shot out of a cannon, noting that even sometimes it's a little hard to keep focused when Saquon is doing Saquon things.
"I kind of had my eyes backside with the read but once I handed it off and by the time I looked up he was already 40 yards downfield."
On The Quote Board
- McSorley's take on the offensive line improvements
"Probably the biggest area you can see is just in their confidence as a unit, where they're kind of going into games, they're confident where they're setting their blocks and really confident in themselves that this run play is going to work or we're going to be able to pass protect as long as we need to, to not let our receivers get open downfield."
- Franklin on the status of the Nittany Lion kickoffs
"Right now, Tyler [Davis] is the guy. We want to treat Alex [Barbir] very similar to other positions when we feel like we can get him a rep and gain some experience. We'll try to do that. But it's Tyler's job. I thought Tyler did a great job with his ball location. You talk about we'd like for that ball to land three, four yards deep in the end zone and outside the numbers, and he didn't consistently get it three, four yards deep in the end zone, but his hang time was really good, and his location was really good in terms of outside the numbers."
- McSorley's take on what the second half of the Pittsburgh game did for the confidence of the offense overtime.
"I think early on that was kind of a little confidence booster for us, being able to have that success and get it going. Obviously, it wasn't one of the big moments because yeah, we weren't able to finish it out and come away with the win, but I think if you were to look back on it and think about how we were able to have some success in that second half and claw and fight back and give ourselves a chance, I think that's something that you can look back and say, yeah, that gave us a little bit of confidence moving on through the year."
- Franklin on the progress of Connor McGovern settling into his role at center."He played at a pretty high level as a true freshman for us last year, has gotten bigger, has gotten stronger, has gotten leaner, is really doing a good job being verbal. That was an area I was a little bit concerned about him is he's not the most vocal guy. Making sure that he was going to take control in there, make the calls with confidence. That was something that I think needed to grow, and I think that was communicated through Coach Limegrover and myself, and he has done a good job. I think you'll just continue to see him get better and better as the season goes on and gain more confidence, which will allow him to be more physical."
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.
Sunday game corrections have been made, now it's on to Pitt, Pitt, Pitt, Pitt, Pitt, Pitt, Pitt, Pitt, Pitt, Pitt, Pitt, Pitt!-- James Franklin (@coachjfranklin) September 3, 2017
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."
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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