Bragging rights in the Keystone State will be on the line this weekend when the no. 13 Penn State Nittany Lions play host to the Pitt Panthers in the all-Pennsylvania rivalry. Game time is set for noon EST on Saturday, September 14 at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pennsylvania. The game will be broadcast nationally on ABC.
Oddsmakers list the Nittany Lions as 17-point favorites at home with an over/under of 54 points. Click here to check out all of this week’s college football betting odds.
The Nittany Lions have started the season fast, although it’s fair to question the level of competition they’ve faced. Penn State began the season with a 79-7 win over Idaho and followed it up last week by beating Buffalo 45-13. The Nittany Lions actually trailed that game at halftime before getting their act together in the second half.
The easy schedule has helped new quarterback Sean Clifford get his feet wet, which is always nice. But now the competition level will start to increase in a serious way. Pitt figures to be no pushover, and then Penn State will begin Big Ten play against a Maryland team that has put themselves in the top-25 early in the season. We haven’t learned much about the Nittany Lions through the first two weeks, but that’s about to change.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh has already suffered a setback in 2019, losing their season opener to Virginia. The Panthers managed to bounce back last week, although they weren’t exactly convincing in a 20-10 win over MAC opponent Ohio. Pitt is now set to face back-to-back ranked teams with Penn State and Central Florida on their schedule the next two weeks.
The good news is that these two non-conference games won’t have any impact on Pitt competing in the ACC Coastal division, which they won last year. However, starting the season 1-3 is a distinct possibility for Pat Narduzzi’s team. Pitt’s ACC schedule isn’t exactly favorable either, so this is a big game for the Panthers prove to themselves and others that they can compete with top teams.
Of course, the Panthers were far from competitive when these two teams got together last season. The Nittany Lions blew out Pitt 51-6 at Heinz Field last September. For what it’s worth, Pitt knocked off Penn State in 2016. But the Nittany Lions have returned the favor the past two seasons and will be confident about beating the Panthers again after last year’s blowout.
It’s with a fair amount of hesitation that I lean toward Penn State in this game. We simply haven’t learned that much about the Nittany Lions early in the season. However, PSU is loaded on defense and will have the home crowd behind them against a team they’ve dominated in back-to-back years. That’s enough for me to take a leap of faith and eat the points.
Trailing at the half against Buffalo last week wasn’t exactly ideal for Penn State. But I don’t want to overreact to one bad half and classify it as a red flag. After all, the Nittany Lions hit their stride in the second half and Clifford looked comfortable throwing the ball. One thing that could be classified as a red flag is Penn State only rushing for 78 yards against Buffalo. But Clifford was good enough passing the ball to overcome that. Also, much like his predecessor Trace McSorley, Clifford is a threat with his legs.
My biggest concern in this game is with the Pitt offense. Heading into the season, there were serious questions about the Pitt running game, and the first two weeks have done little to answer those questions. The Panthers broke out a little against Ohio, but 160 yards on 37 rushes against a MAC team isn’t all that impressive.
To be fair, quarterback Kenny Pickett stepped up with one of the best games of his career, throwing for 321 yards last week. However, the Panthers were only able to turn that into 20 points. Plus, Pickett struggled throughout the 2018 campaign and didn’t get off to a good start in the opener against Virginia, a team with talent on defense that’s closer to what the Panthers will face against Penn State.
Obviously, the Penn State defense hasn’t proven anything by facing Idaho and Buffalo in their first two games. But on paper, the Nittany Lions look awfully good on that side of the ball. They have talent at all three levels, especially the front-7. That makes me think that Penn State will be able to keep the Pitt running game in check. When the Panthers can’t run the ball, it changes what they’re capable of doing on offense. I remain unconvinced that Pickett can carry the offense without a productive running game helping out.
For Pitt, the best-case scenario is a low-scoring defensive slugfest, so that they don’t have to abandon the run and put the game on Pickett’s shoulders. But I think Clifford and the Penn State passing game will start to click sooner or later. When that happens, I don’t think the Panthers will be able to keep up, allowing Penn State to pull away and cover the 17-point spread.