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Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi: Penn State offense similar despite changes

Tribune-Review
| Thursday, September 6, 2018 7:57 p.m
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Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley runs for a touchdown against Appalachian State on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018.

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi’s video study of Penn State’s offense under new coordinator Ricky Rahne hasn’t unveiled many new wrinkles.

“Very similar still,” Narduzzi said.

Penn State has scored nine touchdowns in the past two games against Pitt — all by running back Saquon Barkley (seven) and tight end Mike Gesicki (two), who are both in the NFL. Joe Moorhead, the coach who coordinated those scoring drives, is now the head coach at Mississippi State.

The personnel has changed around senior quarterback Trace McSorley, who has thrown for 496 yards and four touchdowns in the two games, but Narduzzi said the attack hasn’t.

“Just as many RPOs (run/pass options), especially when you get down to the red zone,” he said.

“We’re going to see a lot of RPOs with (offensive) linemen 7 yards down the field (illegally),” he said. “No calls. That’s kind of what it is.”

For the record, Narduzzi has remarked in the past — not just this week — about linemen getting away with running downfield on RPOs that turn into pass plays.

It’s something to keep an eye on, he said.

“(Teams) read a (linebacker, who comes up too quickly) and pop it over his head and get you in man coverage,” he said.

McSorley is good at that because he’s a threat to run. He has scored 20 touchdowns in three seasons.

The game may hinge on what Pitt’s front seven, probably its best group of players on either side of the ball, can do to stop McSorley and running back Miles Sanders (Woodland Hills).

“Don’t sleep on that guy,” Narduzzi said of Sanders, who was Barkley’s backup. “He’s gotten bigger and stronger in the offseason. Catching the ball out of the backfield.

“Sometimes when you watch a guy for so long, you back him up, you start to look like him. He showed some flashes on tape. You’re like, ‘Oh, gosh, where is this guy going to be in another year?’ Is he going to be another Barkley? That’s what he looks like right now.”

“It’s called development. It’s what we do as coaches.”

Whether it’s Sanders taking a handoff or McSorley keeping the football or throwing it, Narduzzi vows his defense will be ready.

“We have a little package for what they do in the red zone with some of their RPOs,” he said.

If Penn State tries to take advantage of Pitt’s speed on defense by running screens and reverses and trying to get defenders out of position, Narduzzi said it’s nothing he hasn’t seen before.

“That’s what they always do. That’s college football,” he said. “That’s the spread. We expect to see a lot of that spread.”

It remains to be seen if Narduzzi will give his quarterback, sophomore Kenny Pickett, the same freedoms McSorley enjoys. But he did say they carry the same characteristics.

“Two guys who love the game of football, smart, athletic can make plays with their feet, make plays with their arms.”

Pickett, 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, is 2 inches taller and 19 pounds heavier than McSorley’s listed height and weight. But the most significant difference between the quarterbacks is the most obvious.

“He has years on Kenny. He has game experience,” Narduzzi said. “He’s been there before and played in big games and made big plays in big games, too. He’s learned from the mistakes he’s made.

“They are similar guys. Good thing for them and good thing for us for the future.”

But for one night, the experience factor at quarterback might be the ultimate difference in the teams.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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