Big-play ability gives PSU edge

Five things to look for as Penn State and Pitt play for the 100th time, with everyone fully aware this could be the last meeting between the in-state rivals for a long time.

No. 1: Big plays

Penn State’s offense needs to start playing with some consistency, getting more contributions from the running game and sustaining lots of drives. At some point, the Nittany Lions are going to have to do all those things to beat good opponents.

However, for today — just like last week against Buffalo — the Lions probably can win even if they don’t click on all cylinders offensively. That is, as long as PSU continues to show its explosive ability and scores on some big plays.

The Lions have the weapons and the playcalling wherewithal to strike quickly. Give Sean Clifford a little time in the pocket for things to develop downfield, and he has several guys at his disposal — KJ Hamler, Jahan Dotson, Pat Freiermuth, Justin Shorter — to burn the Panthers.

Pitt has a good secondary, which will make things tougher for the PSU receivers.

But the Panthers aren’t as strong up front because of injuries to two starters, which means Clifford should have time and opportunities throughout the game to get some chunk plays.

No. 2: Pitt’s balance

The Panthers can run the ball. They always can. It would be a big surprise if they don’t have some success on the ground today, led by A.J. Davis.

Even in last year’s 51-6 thrashing by PSU, Pitt rushed for 245 yards and held the ball for 34 minutes. The Lions scored quickly several times, so time of possession meant nothing in that game.

The problem Pitt had last year is that quarterback Kenny Pickett wasn’t effective. At all. He completed 9-of-18 for just 55 yards and threw one interception.

Pretty much no one beats Penn State’s solid defense by being one dimensional. Been that way forever.

If Pitt rushes for close to 200 yards today and Pickett can be effective throwing for 200 or more, then the Panthers will have a very good chance to stay close or even pull off a big upset.

Pickett is coming off a big game against Ohio, completing 26-of-37 for 321 yards and one score. He should have a lot of confidence, but we’ll see how much confidence new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple has in letting his quarterback throw the ball a lot today.

The Panthers have an excellent receiver in Maurice Ffrench, who has 16 catches for 192 yards. It should be a fun matchup to watch if cornerback John Reid is on him all day.

No. 3: Field position

Both of these offenses could have a tough time driving 80-plus yards for touchdowns. The different reasons were explained above — PSU relies heavily on big plays, and Pitt’s passing game could be suspect.

The kicking game, therefore, could come into play today, and both teams have good punters.

Penn State’s Blake Gillikin is fantastic at pinning teams inside the 20 (and even better, inside the 10), while Pitt’s Kirk Christodoulou comes in averaging 44.1 yards.

That point spread

A 17-point line is interesting. Especially with the history between these teams and the way James Franklin likes to operate late in games.

Franklin wants to demolish Pat Narduzzi. You absolutely can bet on that.

Narduzzi’s ill-advised foray clapping back at Franklin on the signals issues this week served no purpose other than to try and get under Franklin’s skin, and when your team is a 17-point underdog, that’s a dicey move.

For me, 17 points seems like a lot to give Pitt, especially with PSU’s offensive questions. But it’s also a backdoor cover type of number if the Lions are up late and have things in hand, then Franklin tries to rub it in a little with some deep pass plays.

I could see a decent 14-point game turn into a 28-point rout in that scenario.

No. 5: Players to watch

PSU: The front seven on defense. Pitt will commit to running the ball, and it has good schemes to do so. Penn State had issues containing Buffalo’s hard-running style last week, so the D-line and linebackers coming up in run support must be disciplined, stay in their lanes and not miss tackles.

Pitt: QB Kenny Pickett. The Panthers need him to play well and balance out their offense with a good passing day.

Prediction: Penn State 31, Pitt 17

Follow @CoryGiger on Twitter for live updates and analysis throughout today’s game.