By: Thomas Frank Carr
James Franklin’s dogged determination to treat each game with the same level of importance has taken a life of its own over the past four years. He’s steadfastly refused to look ahead to games that his team is not playing that week, nor does he accept the idea that some games are bigger than others. This week it’s reached a fever-pitch with fans and media clamoring for a war of words and an affirmation that Penn State vs Pitt means something special. Here is just an excerpt from Franklin’s response to his fourth variation of “How big of a game is this to your players?”
“I guess what I don’t understand is are we supposed to prepare harder this week than we did last week? I mean, if we didn’t play well, and I said, well, yeah, we didn’t prepare as hard this week because we’ve got this game next week that’s a big game…It never makes sense to me, and people get frustrated with it and all that kind of stuff, but we are going to control the things that we can control. The thing that we can control is today, not tomorrow, not yesterday. We can control today. So I want our players, I want our coaches to do everything they possibly can from the time the alarm goes off to the time they go to sleep and be comfortable at night laying your head on the pillow because you know you did everything you possibly could to maximize that day.”
It’s the most terse the Nittany Lion’s head coach has gotten on the subject in quite some time. It’s also an interesting case study this week in the varying styles of the two head coaches. Pat Narduzzi has closed media access to his players for the week and is openly embracing the emotion of the game (again). Last year his team won, but wasn’t able to hold a sizable lead in the 2nd half of the game. We’ll see whose style will prevail this weekend.
- Fear Factor
After the victory over Akron, Penn State Head Coach James Franklin said that his young defensive ends had a good first game but had to improve their pass rush,
“We still have to get some guys in a pass rush situation that put the fear in an offensive coordinator or offensive tackle or quarterback’s mind. That will come.”
How do they get to that point? Franklin elaborated on this point at his weekly press conference,
“First of all, that was the position we probably had the least experience returning, so they need to gain more experience, and the best way to gain experience is by playing.“
Part of that pass rushing corps is freshman Itor Gross-Matos who has had an impressive camp. So impressive that Franklin and his staff decided early on that he would play this year. The 6’5” 250 pound true freshman was even compared to a standout Nittany Lion from the past.
“He’s done as good as you can as a true freshman. He’s got the physical characteristics, he’s huge..he reminds me a lot of Carl Nassib. He’s starting to get it all down and put it all together,” said sophomore defensive end Ryan Bucholtz. It’s ironic that Bucholtz would call anyone big when he stands at 6’6, 275 pounds.
Bucholtz, Matos, and first year starter Shareef Miller are part of the young group of ends that Franklin implored to step up their pass rush. With speed rusher Shaka Toney added into the mix as well as veteran Torrance Brown, the talent and ability is there.
The issue may be their discipline in the running game, which we will get to later.
- Quadree’s Return
The All-American return specialist was a nightmare for the Nittany Lions last year. Franklin has him squarely in his sights this year.
“Quadree Henderson in my opinion is the issue in the game. He’s the guy you go into the game and you say who’s the guy that can be a game changer or a game wrecker, however you want to describe it. He’s that guy. So we have to have a plan for him to try to limit the impact that he’ll have in this game,”
Franklin said at his weekly press conference on Tuesday. How does he plan on stopping the diminutive yet dynamic wide out?
“Our kickers – Tyler on kickoff, and Blake [Gillikin] on punts – and making sure that our punts and our kicks have the right distance, the right hang time, and the right location to allow our guys to get down and cover the ball.”
Franklin has a point, Henderson flipped the field in the 2nd half of the game last year in Pittsburgh. Of his 201 total yards last year, 98 came on returns.
The junior wide out had 98 combined yards in the first half on offense and was a major problem on jet sweeps, screens and reverses. However, in the 2nd half Henderson had exactly zero touches and only one target in the passing game. That also coincided with Penn State fighting their way back into the game. Either Pitt forgot about their best offensive weapon not named James Conner, or Penn State found a way to keep the ball out of his hands. The end result was Henderson was ineffective on offense.
Conner is gone to the NFL and Pitt is missing 16 starters from last year’s game as well. Henderson is one of the few bright spots for the Pitt offense and will have to have a monster game to keep Pitt within shouting distance of the Nittany Lions.
Pitt’s offense relies heavily on disguise and subterfuge in their pre-snap motion in order to move the ball according to senior middle linebacker Jason Cabinda,
“It’s a lot of smokes and mirrors, trades and shifts, we just have to do a good job or making sure our guys are reading our keys and trusting our keys and guys are doing their jobs.”
Franklin said that he doesn’t foresee much difference between the Pitt offense last year and this year, even with the Panthers having a new offensive coordinator in Shawn Watson to replace former coordinator Matt Canada,
“No, I think Pat’s running a program where he has systems that he believes in, and he’s going to hire coordinators to come in and run those systems. Obviously there’s some tweaks, but when you watch, you watch the first two, maybe the first three drives against Youngstown State and it looks like the same stuff that they ran last year: trades, shifts, motions, unbalanced, fly sweep, fake fly sweep, inside zone, power split zone. I think it’s very similar.”
While Pitt will likely run a very similar system to last year, they likely held a lot back vs Youngstown State last year. The way that they have treated the Penn State game the last two years suggests that they put more stock in this game than they do others on their early-season schedule. Expect Pitt to show some looks, formations and plays that they didn’t use last week, despite their close game vs Youngstown State.
Their best hope is that they can surprise the Franklin and his Nittany Lions for some quick points early in the game.
Here’s the reality; Pitt isn’t very good this year. Even though they probably won’t be as bad as they showed last week vs Youngstown State, they’re not even close to being on the same level as Penn State. It seems redundant to say that the Penn State offense is far superior to the Pitt defense at all levels. It will be a chore for the Panthers to slow the Nittany Lions down, let alone stop them. The only chance that Pitt has is if they can get to Trace McSorley and give some of the young offensive linemen fits.
After a fantastic game last year that was dynamic and exciting to the very end, this game will most likely be over sometime in the third quarter. While Penn State fans may relish the idea, it won’t generate the same level of excitement that the game did last year in Pittsburgh.