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The 3-2-1 Column: Pitt-Penn State No. 100 is on tap

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In this week’s 3-2-1 Column, we’re thinking about Pitt’s trip to State College and what’s waiting for the Panthers at Beaver Stadium.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

A need for perfection
100 is a nice round number, isn’t it?

It’s such a culmination. There’s a finality to that number. 100% is all of whatever you have. It’s everything. If any number truly is an end point, it’s 100.

And so we prepare for one last drive across Route 22, up I-99 to a hamlet in the middle of the state, just a mile or two before the prison, for the 100th game in the historic Pitt-Penn State series.

It’s a rivalry with enough animosity to fill a stadium of 100,000, and that’s exactly what Pitt will be facing at Beaver Stadium on Saturday. The Panthers’ last trip there didn’t go so well. I mean, Pitt hasn’t had a good trip to State College in 30 years, but that’s beside the point. That last trip, the one in 2017 when the Panthers lost 33-14, was a textbook example of what not to do.

Like, you know, committing three turnovers, including two interceptions in the first half. Or getting called for six penalties. A year later, Pitt reinforced the point by muffing several plays on special teams.

Mistakes: they’re the key to Pitt winning or losing its final scheduled game against Penn State. Because no matter what else we want to say, we have to acknowledge that Penn State has, in broad terms, out-recruited Pitt in the classes that make up the current rosters for both teams.

Penn State has, pretty objectively, accumulated more overall talent than Pitt. It’s not a PSU-Idaho level of separation, but it’s a separation nonetheless.

Fortunately for the Panthers, the games aren’t played on paper. Those players, regardless of talent level, have to take the field and actually play the game. They have to execute and perform in key moments. And that puts the game up for grabs.

But if Pitt is going to grab this one, if the Panthers are going to enter the next hiatus of the series with a win as the most recent memory the way they did 19 years ago, then they absolutely, positively cannot make mistakes. That doesn’t mean playing so tight that you lose because you were afraid of making mistakes, but this is the kind of game where mistakes can, and likely will, be the deciding factor.

So Pitt has to minimize them. The Panthers must avoid turnovers, not by playing cautious but by protecting the ball. There are multiple layers underneath that goal - the pass protection being a big one - but the overall goal remains: Pitt has to play a near-perfect game.

And the Panthers will need some breaks to their way, too. This defense is turnover-starved; they haven’t gotten a takeaway since the Miami game last season, and they’ll need to break that streak on Saturday.

This isn’t to say that Pitt can only win if the Panthers get lucky with a few bounces in their direction; the talent separation isn’t that great. But the chances of victory are going to increase significantly if Pitt’s mistakes are minimized and the Panthers can take advantage of a few Penn State miscues.

I don’t think that’s out of the question. A sleepwalking first half against Buffalo notwithstanding, this Penn State team hasn’t really been tested yet. They haven’t faced a team with Pitt’s talent, particularly on defense, and that could give the Panthers a chance to jump on the Nittany Lions early.

By 3:30 or so on Saturday afternoon, we'll know who gets the last laugh in the Pitt-Penn State series. The Nittany Lions aren't going to give up the advantage they have in the overall series - they currently lead 52-43-4 - but winning the last game is something that one of these teams will be able to hang its hat on.

No matter what Penn State fans said between 2000 and 2016, they couldn't deny that Pitt had won the last time the two teams met on the field. That win in 2000 at Three Rivers Stadium broke a seven-game losing streak for Pitt in the series, which was the third-longest winning streak for either team in the series, following Pitt's 14-game stretch from 1922-38 and Penn State's 10-game run from 1966-75.

There's a lot of history in these games. A lot of memories, both good and bad for each side. Those memories won't be lost, even when the games aren't being played anymore, and that's why this 2019 Pitt team has such an important task ahead of it:

These Panthers will make the memories for the next generation. A generation of Pitt fans only heard about Rod Rutherford running for a touchdown on the turf. If Pat Narduzzi's crew prevails, that's what the next generation of Pitt fans will know.

That was encouraging
Before we continue with our look at this week’s game, there’s one thing I want to highlight from last week’s contest.

Going into the Ohio game, all talk was focused on the passing game and how ineffective it had been against Virginia. Of course, the whole offense was pretty miserable, but Kenny Pickett and the passing attack took the brunt of the criticism.

A secondary target for criticism, though, was the running game. Pickett accounted for 12 of the 30 official rushing attempts - 4 of those were sacks at probably 7 more were scrambles, but still - while the running backs had a total of 18 carries. Not surprisingly, the results were less than impressive; A.J. Davis, Vincent Davis, Todd Sibley and V’Lique Carter combined for 62 rushing yards on those 18 carries, an average of 3.4 yards per rush.

That wasn’t good enough. Even if Pitt is focusing on the pass this season and throwing the ball is the priority, averaging 3.4 ypc from the running backs isn’t good enough. So while I was right there with everyone else in wanting to see more from the passing game against Ohio, there was also a need for the running game to find some success in Week Two.

Now, there’s no question that the passing game improved. Pickett set career highs with 26 completions and 321 yards and, perhaps most importantly, he didn’t throw any interceptions.

But on that other half of the offense, it wasn’t as clear. Pitt finished the Ohio game with 160 net rushing yards on 37 attempts; that’s an average of 4.3 yards per carry, and that’s not bad. But I think the numbers are actually even better than that. The law firm of Davis, Davis, Carter and Sibley combined for 164 yards on 34 carries, which is 4.8 yards per carry.

And when the Panthers needed to close things out, when they needed to run clock and shut down any lingering hopes Ohio might have had for a comeback, then running game showed up. Pitt got the ball at its own 7 with a 20-10 lead and 7:05 on the clock, and I’ll admit: I expected a drive that took a few minutes off the clock and then the Panthers’ defense would finish the job.

Instead, Pitt went 69 yards on 11 plays, and aside from an eight-yard pass from Pickett to tight end Will Gragg to convert the first third down of the drive, the entire possession was made up of running plays.

The work was split between Davis and Davis. A.J. Davis rushed three times for 25 yards; Vincent Davis had the other seven carries for 36 yards. It was the kind of dominant run game we saw all the time last season - the kind that, quite frankly, I wasn’t sure this year’s team was capable of.

But there they were, shoving the ball right down Ohio’s throat. The Bobcats knew it was coming and couldn’t stop it, and when the clock ran out on the game, I was surprised to see that the Panthers had finished things off in that fashion.

The competition level is going up, of course. Pitt’s running game is still finding its groove. And the pass will still be the priority. But it had to be a confidence boost for the offense to remember what it’s like to close a game out with the run.

The pass rush will make the call
Keeping up the rushing success from last week’s game - or at least the final drive of last week’s game - would be a good thing for Pitt’s offense, but ultimately, I think this Saturday’s game is going to come down to simple question:

Which team can protect the quarterback better?

Or, put another way, which team can rush the quarterback better?

Those are two halves of the same question, and they both are probably going to go a long way in answering the ultimate question of who wins this game.

Through two games, Penn State definitely has the better numbers when it comes to protecting Sean Clifford. The redshirt sophomore quarterback has dropped back 53 times and been pressured just 14 times; that’s a 26.4% pressure rate that ranks lower than 63 other quarterbacks nationally who have at least 53 drop-backs this season.

But there’s no question that Pitt presents far more of a pass rush than Idaho and Buffalo did. In the season opener against Virginia, the Panthers pressured Bryce Perkins on nearly half of his drop-backs (20 out of 42). And they got to Ohio quarterback Nathan Rourke on 14 of 33 drop-backs. That’s a 45% pressure rate, and the defense will have to shoot for similar results on Saturday.

Conversely, through two games Kenny Pickett has dropped back 91 times - that’s the ninth-most in the nation - and been pressured 35 times. That’s a 38.5% pressure rate that ranks in the top 20.

Clearly, there are differences in volume and competition; Pickett has dropped back nearly twice as much as Clifford and Virginia and Ohio are a cut above Idaho and Buffalo. But just as Pickett’s performance improved when the pressure lightened up (Virginia accounted for 24 of the 35 times he has been pressured), it’s not hard to conclude that the quarterback who goes unpressured the most will probably be the most successful.

And the quarterback who is the most successful is going to win this game.

So, as is the case in just about every football game, Pitt-Penn State No. 100 will be decided up front. On a man-to-man, talent comparison level, that probably favors the Nittany Lions. Defensive ends Yetur Gross-Matos Jayson Oweh were four-star prospects, as was defensive tackle P.J. Mustipher, and defensive end Shaka Toney was a three-star top target for Pitt.

That’s some talent along Penn State’s defensive front. Gross-Matos has eight pressures through two games and Toney has five, and those guys are going to present a considerable challenge for Pitt’s offensive tackles, Nolan Ulizio and Carter Warren.

And then there’s Pitt’s pass rush. The defensive line has performed well in the absences of Rashad Weaver and Keyshon Camp, with Patrick Jones, Deslin Alexandre and Habakkuk Baldonado looking pretty good at end and Jaylen Twyman looking like a stud at tackle. Those linemen should be better than the linemen Penn State faced in the wins over Idaho and Buffalo, but Penn State’s offensive line is also probably better than the offensive lines Pitt faced against Virginia and Ohio.

I think it’s safe to say that, in terms of rushing the passer and protecting the passer, Saturday’s game will be the biggest challenge yet for both teams. And the team that wins that battle, the one that protects its quarterback while putting more pressure on the other team’s quarterback, is most likely going to be the one to win the game.

TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE

Is this the biggest matchup?
The pass rush and its effectiveness will probably decide the game, but I think the biggest matchup might be in a different area.

Penn State’s leading receiver this year is Pat Freiermuth. He leads the Nittany Lions in targets (12) and receptions (9) and is tied for the lead in receiving touchdowns (2). That’s after he caught a team-high eight touchdown passes last season. He’s good and he’s the latest PSU tight end to present a challenging matchup.

We know that Pitt has had trouble defending a certain area of the field in the last few years. Whether it was the outside linebackers or the safeties - and, really, it was a combination of both - there were problems when receivers worked the seams and between the numbers.

I mean, there have been other issues in the pass defense since 2015, too. Whether it was wheel routes or dime-drops, Pitt’s defenders have been susceptible to a number of passing attacks. But most of those things got corrected over time; whether or not Pitt can defend attacking tight ends and slot receivers remains to be seen.

Given Freiermuth’s ability and the likelihood that Penn State will work star receiver K.J. Hamler over the middle of the field from the slot, Pitt’s linebackers and safeties are going to have their hands full. The pass defense has been good through two games, but this week’s contest is a game where that element of the team can really make an impact.

Football cliché alert: football is best executed with all 11 players working as one. The pass rush - as mentioned above - can have a significant impact on the play of the secondary. And if Pitt keeps Sean Clifford and his receivers and tight ends from putting up big numbers, it will be a result of the line getting pressure and the linebackers getting physical near the line of scrimmage and the defensive backs taking good angles in coverage.

All of that will be important.

But Kylan Johnson and Cam Bright and Phil Campbell (and maybe Chase Pine if he moves back to outside linebacker) are going to have their hands full with Freiermuth, not to mention the threat of Hamler working from the slot.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that, outside of the pass rush, the biggest individual matchup is Pitt’s outside linebackers against Freiermuth. I mean, Freiermuth could have a quiet day because Hamler goes off for 175 yards and three touchdowns, but I’m guessing Penn State will try to attack down the seams, which means the outside linebackers are going to have to handle him.

The best way to do it, at least initially, is to be physical. This really goes for all elements on defense: if you have a shot at the quarterback, nail him. If you tackle the running back, do it with a couple players. If you’re working on the line of scrimmage against a receiver, don’t let him get a free release. Let Penn State know, early on, that you intend to be physical and use that physicality to disrupt the timing of the passing game.

And then you simply have to cover. You have to read the receiver’s hips and run with him and make a play on the ball. I know Pat Narduzzi has said that K.J. Hamler is “Waldo” this week - as in, you’re always trying to find him - but keeping Freiermuth under wraps is pretty important, too.

Is this going to turn into a weapon?
Speaking of tight ends…

Through two games, it sure looks like Pitt plans to use its tight ends in the passing game. I know, I’m as surprised as you are, largely because I had a sneaking suspicion last year that the complete absence of the tight ends wasn’t as much a product of scheme or philosophy on the part of Shawn Watson as it was a reflection on the abilities and reliability of the tight ends on the roster.

Simply put, they didn’t trust Will Gragg to block well enough - Narduzzi said that if you don’t block, you’re just a big receiver and Pitt had plenty of those - and there really wasn’t anybody else who could be a viable pass-catcher at tight end.

The result was some paltry production from the position:

17 targets, 10 receptions, 69 yards.

That’s the stat line for the entire season. It’s hard to make less of an impact than that.

Fast-forward eight months or so, and it’s a different story altogether. Gragg is now third on the team in receptions and tied for third in targets. He has seen eight passes thrown his way through two games and caught seven of them for 42 yards and, most importantly, four first downs (every catch he made against Ohio moved the chains).

Nakia Griffin-Stewart has had some issues with drops - he has had one in each of Pitt’s two games - but he has also picked up a first down on two of his three receptions this season, giving the tight ends six first down catches through two games. A year ago, Gragg, Jim Medure and Tyler Sear combined to gain five first downs all season.

So there’s no doubt that the tight ends are more involved this season. The question is, how will that function in the larger offense and passing game? We all said last year that tight end passes were a missing piece of the offense and that incorporating more of those could give Kenny Pickett an extra safety valve and potentially open up more in the passing game overall.

Now those passes are getting thrown - and caught - and I’m wondering just what the impact will be. The priorities in the passing game are still Maurice Ffrench and Taysir Mack, but Gragg is even in targets with Pitt’s No. 3 receiver, Tre Tipton, and his continued involvement could have a ripple effect on how defenses approach those three wideouts.

I don’t have an answer for this question just yet, but it’s going to be really interesting to see if Gragg can continue to play well, if Pickett can continue to get the ball to him and how all of that will fit into the offense.

ONE PREDICTION

Pitt will score outside the second quarter
So the strangest thing happened last week:

I made a prediction about Pitt and it turned out to be right.

There is a long and well-documented - by me, no less - history of this “prediction” section of the 3-2-1 Column being terribly and almost hilariously wrong. From on-field results to recruiting, I have missed the mark with alarming frequency.

But last week, I finally got one right. I said that Pitt’s passing game was going to improve, and while I stayed in rather vague terms talking about “taking a step forward” and “getting right,” the overall point was that I expected Pickett and company to have a better game in Week Two than they had in Week One.

And they did, of course. Pickett threw for a career-high 321 yards, and completed passes to eight different receivers in the win. It was the best passing performance of Pickett’s career, and while they certainly could have used a few more touchdowns - and he definitely got lucky on one throw to the end zone that could have been easily intercepted - overall, Pickett was pretty good against Ohio.

Put that one in the W column for me. Now let’s try it again, and I’ll stick with the offense for a second week in a row. So here it is, and sit down for this because it’s a pretty bold prediction:

Pitt’s offense will - wait for it - score a touchdown outside the second quarter.

Whoa. I know. That take is so hot it could melt steel.

Okay, expecting the Panthers to be able to reach the end zone in the first, third or fourth quarter isn’t really asking that much. It shouldn’t be, at least, but for the first two games, that’s been a problem. As a matter of fact, Pitt hasn’t scored a touchdown outside the second quarter since the win at Wake Forest game last season.

To wit:

Wake Forest - One touchdown in the second quarter and four in the third and fourth quarters
Miami - No touchdowns
Clemson - One touchdown in the second quarter; none in the first, third or fourth quarters
Stanford - One touchdown in the second quarter: none in the first, third or fourth quarters
Virginia - Two touchdowns in the second quarter; none in the first, third or fourth quarters
Ohio - Two touchdowns in the second quarter; none in the first, third or fourth quarters

Setting aside the fact that Pitt has scored six total offensive touchdowns in the last five games, the fact that they were all in the second quarter is almost unbelievable. A statistical anomaly, you would think, and one, I would think, that will get broken this weekend.

What do I base that on? Well…I can’t say I have some stats or data to throw at you here. There’s nothing to suggest that Penn State’s defense is more susceptible in the first or third or fourth quarters (although Idaho did get a touchdown in the final frame) than Miami, Clemson, Stanford, Virginia and Ohio. But at some point, something has to give, right?

I’m saying it gives this weekend. Maybe it will be the difference in a win; maybe it won’t. But I say Pitt will find a way to score in the 75% of the game that has been touchdown-free since last November.