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Pitt-Penn State preview: Three keys to victory for each team

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AP
Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi watches his team in the second half against Albany on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018.
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AP
James Franklin

It’s hard to convince Penn State coach James Franklin and his fans that the Pitt game is any more than 1/12th of the regular season. After all, when the Nittany Lions lost to Pitt two years ago, they still won the Big Ten championship.

Pitt, of course, sees the game Saturday night at Heinz Field as a big deal, which is a fact because it’s not every day 70,000 people descend upon the North Shore to watch the Panthers.

A victory might launch Pitt into the Associated Press Top 25 and would continue No. 13 Penn State’s drop in the rankings from No. 10 in the preseason. It also would make Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi 2-1 against Penn State as well as 2-0 against teams (Clemson and Miami).

Penn State is a 7 1 2 -point favorite. The lean here is for Pitt to cover, but lose. Penn State 27, Pitt 24

Here’s a primer on what each team must do to win (not that they asked).

Pitt

1. Shut off McSorley’s passing lanes

The notion that Pitt has a particularly strong defensive line and linebacker groups has been advanced since the start of training camp and was confirmed this week by Todd Blackledge, the former Penn State quarterback who will do the analysis for ABC’s national audience.

If that’s the case, Pitt should drop five or six of its better athletes into coverage and take away Trace McSorley’s options. Let defenders Shane Roy, Dewayne Hendrix and Elijah Zeise worry about the running game.

If Penn State wins, it will do it through the air.

2. Use all three backs to pound at Penn State’s defense

Pitt has a bonanza of talent at running back with Darrin Hall, Qadree Ollison and A.J. Davis. Give each of them 10 carries — Hall or Davis might even break one — and Ollison will run over a defensive back or two.

Quarterback Kenny Pickett will need to throw, and if he has early success and loosens up the defense, Pitt’s running game can make a significant difference.

3. Get Bookser healthy

Alex Bookser, a senior offensive tackle and co-captain, didn’t play against Albany, but no one knows for sure why. Coach Pat Narduzzi will tell you, “We don’t talk about injuries.”

OK, but Pitt needs to resolve whatever is/was ailing Bookser — it didn’t appear to be a major issue — so he can anchor the line at right tackle. He’s probably the most important player on either team, other than the quarterbacks.

Penn State

1. Get DT Givens out of the doghouse

Not sure what was more difficult:

Kevin Givens calling Narduzzi at the bewitching hour the day before letter-of-intent day in 2015 to tell the new coach he was flipping to Penn State? Or, Penn State trying to get by without Givens last week?

Both tasks took some teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing. Yes, he’s that important to what Penn State wants to do on defense.

Franklin suspended Givens for the Appalachian State game for violation of team rules, and his absence showed. The Nittany Lions gave up 451 yards of total offense.

Asked if Givens, 6-foot-1, 285 pounds, will play Saturday, Franklin said, “Yeah, I hope so.”

He also made it clear Givens let the team down with his suspension.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that you’ve got one of your better defensive tackles not playing in the game. Did that have a factor in it? I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. We’ll be better when Kevin starts playing for us.”

Givens played linebacker at Altoona before adding 40 pounds since coming to Penn State.

2. Let Hamler remain a difference maker

Narduzzi might not like what he sees when he looks across the field and finds another recruit who got away.

KJ Hamler, 5-9, 180, is a Pontiac, Mich., native who went to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., suffered a knee injury and missed the 2016 season. Just a redshirt freshman, he caught the overtime-forcing touchdown pass last week, made three catches for 67 yards and also returned a kickoff 52 yards in his first game since 2015. He was told to take a touchback, but returned it, anyway, to set up his game-tying TD reception.

“If I would have gotten tackled on the 12, that would have been bad,” Hamler told the Allentown Morning Call. “But, you know, I had to risk it. Sometimes you have to take risks to do big things.”

He is a contrast to Penn State wide receiver, Juwan Johnson, who is 6-4, 229, even though Narduzzi said he “looks 6-9.”

Pass defense was supposed to be one of the areas of major improvement at Pitt this season. Penn State will test that notion.

3. Score early, control the ball

Even in a 19-point defeat last year at Beaver Stadium, Pitt held the football for 38 minutes, 20 seconds. If that happens again, Pitt has more weapons than it did a year ago and can do more things with the football.

If the Nittany Lions jump to an early lead — like Pitt did two years ago in its victory at Heinz Field — it can control the game’s tempo on offense, take away the Panthers’ running game and force Kenny Pickett and his young wide receivers to make big plays.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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