The Nittany Lions Look to Improve Against Pitt
Penn State football is entering the second week of the 2018 season, but for Nittany Nation it just seems to be a continuation of a 2017 season where nobody was comfortable until the clock hit zero. After an anxiety filled game in week one, the Nittany Lions look to improve against Pitt.
Penn State started off 2018 with an overtime win against unranked Appalachian State a week ago. The Nittany Lions barely escaped a well-prepared Mountaineers team 45-38. The defense looked flat out of the jump and the special teams coverage was nonexistent. There were a few shining stars. Freshman kicking duo Jake Pinegar and Rafael Checa, receiver KJ Hamler, and true freshman Micah Parsons did not disappoint. With every season opener there will be bumps and kinks that need worked out. For the Nittany Lions, almost every position could use some work before entering Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Trace McSorley did not miss a step entering 2018. Against Appalachian State he rushed for 53 yards, passed for 229, and scored a total of three touchdowns on the day. The redshirt senior quarterback looked ready to play, but the passing game was anything but spectacular. Receiver Juwan Johnson had three crucial dropped passes that were perfectly placed by McSorley and Brandon Polk and Deandre Thompkins were barely utilized. KJ Hamler was the star of the group, look for him to get more looks as the season progresses.
If the Nittany Lions look to improve against Pitt on Saturday, the two most veteran receivers, Johnson and Thompkins, will have to step up and make plays against a veteran Panther defense that finished 65th in scoring defense a season ago.
The Penn State offensive line did not live up to the hype entering week one against Appalachian State. While the inside line is still adjusting to movements by Connor McGovern and Michal Menet, the group that Nittany Nation expected to be a strength will have to figure things out before entering Heinz Field Staurday night. The offensive line for the Nittany Lions did not look remotely close to a veteran group until Will Fries replaced Chasz Wright at right tackle to start the second half.
The Panthers’ defense is led by senior linebacker/safety Oluwaseun Idowu. Idowu ended the 2017 season with 94 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and five sacks. He is a much better player than what the o-line saw against Appalachian State on Saturday. In addition to Idowu coming off the end, sophomore defensive tackle Keyshon Camp will likely cause problems for an inside line that is still adjusting to changes. Camp had two sacks in the Panther opener.
Running Back Depth
All three running backs on the depth chart were utilized in the win against Appalachian State. Freshman Ricky Slade recorded his first touchdown for the Nittany Lions and showed Nittany Nation what to expect in the future. Even with all three backs getting reps, Miles Sanders separated himself as the lead back.
Sanders looked ready to take over the lead role, rushing for 91 yards and two touchdowns. Sanders showed his athleticism early, hurdling over a defender on the first drive of the game. The latest Sports Illustrated cover man carried the ball on all four overtime plays, eventually leading to the game winner. Look for Pittsburgh native to carry the load as he goes back to his home city to play in front of a home crowd.
If the Nittany Lions look to improve against Pitt on Saturday, the defense will have to make key adjustments.
Key Returns for the Defensive Line
The defensive line was notably without veteran defensive tackle Kevin Givens in the opener and an already depleted front seven struggled. All signs point to Givens returning for the match up against Pitt on Saturday after being suspended for a violation of team rules. Shane Simmons should also be back this week after recovering from a minor injury. The return of these two should help the Nittany Lions get to Panther quarterback Kenny Pickett. Pickett entered the final 2017 regular season game against Miami to complete the upset for the Panthers. The Pitt quarterback is football smart and will utilize what he is given to make a play. He had a completion percentage of 72.1 a week ago.
The D-line will also have to contain two Panther running backs. Senior back Qadree Ollison accumulated 126 yards against Penn State a season ago and rushed for 71 against Albany in the Pitt opener. The Panthers will also utilize sophomore A.J. Davis in the running game. Pitt will likely look to take advantage of a Penn State defensive line that is trying to fill gaps. They will be rotating backs and allowing Pickett to use his legs.
Linebacker and Secondary Struggles
Kenny Pickett’s favorite target is senior receiver Rafael Araujo-Lopes. Araujo-Lopes is only 5 ft. 9 in. and 190 lbs., but has a lot of speed and is very elusive in space. He had three receptions in week one, scoring on two of those. He will be a challenge to a Penn State secondary that allowed Appalachian State 292 passing yards with an average of 11.2 yards per reception. The game was saved when Amani Oruwariye finally stepped up for a game ending interception in the end zone in overtime. John Reid had a lackluster performance in his return from a year long injury. Saturday will be a good indicator if the Penn State secondary was able to learn from mistakes and improve. Otherwise it will be a long season ahead for Trace McSorley and the offense.
The linebackers will have to contain Pickett on Saturday because open field tackling was a struggle for Penn State against the Mountaineers. While Jan Johnson led the team with 11 tackles, the linebackers were not disciplined. They were often out of position and missed wide open tackles, allowing for a big gain. Nittany Nation needs to remember that this is a unit that is only returning two starters from a season ago.
Look for drastic improvement going into week two. Most notably, look for more of true freshman Micah Parsons. Parsons showed his athleticism when he was in the game on Saturday, finishing the day with four tackles.
Special teams coverage in week one was not what Nittany Nation has come to expect over the last two seasons. The Mountaineers capitalized on the miscues to return a kick-off for a touchdown on their first drive of the afternoon. The freshman kicking duo fared nicely. Jake Pinegar made his only field goal attempt from 32-yards, and went 5-for-5 on extra points. Rafael Checa may have had his first kick-off returned for a touchdown, but rebounded nicely. Finally, punter Blake Gillikin started where he left off a season ago and averaged 43-yards on punts.
Look for the special teams to work out the miscues and be ready to play in front of what will likely be a pro-Penn State crowd in Pittsburgh.
Miles Sanders will be heading home to play in Heinz Field as the starting Penn State running back and will likely play against many guys that he knows. Look for a pro-Penn State crowd on hand for the in-state match up. It will likely be another slug fest for the Nittany Lions as there are still many question marks on the defensive side of the ball.
Penn State vs. Pitt will air on ABC at 8:00 pm (ET).