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Pitt vs. Penn State Preview: Panthers will have their hands full with Nittany Lions

Last week, Pitt barely escaped with a 28-21 win in their opener against Youngstown State. The team's next opponent, Penn State, had far less trouble with Akron in a 52-0 romp.

Of course, there were some reasons for the Panthers' struggles. The team was playing shorthanded missing starters Alex Bookser and Jordan Whitehead, as well as linebacker Quintin Wirginis, due to suspensions. Pitt also ran seemingly as basic an offense as possible in an effort to not show their hand to Penn State. That strategy worked to perfection last year as the Nittany Lions were routinely caught off guard by what Pitt was doing after the Panthers also enjoyed a relatively easy victory against Villanova. But this year, it nearly cost them as they were forced to overtime by the Penguins. Pitt players admitted after the game that there was some easing up after a 21-0 lead against Youngstown State and that contributed to a game that was closer than expected.

While playing with those handicaps in the opening contest was ultimately overcome, Pitt, of course, will have their hands full with a top ten Penn State team that is expected to challenge for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Last season, Pitt defeated Penn State in a largely entertaining game, 42-39. This year's Pitt team, however, is drastically different.

Gone is Nathan Peterman, who has played well in the preseason and could be the Buffalo Bills starter if Tyrod Taylor can't get over injury issues. Gone is James Conner, who will be playing at Heinz Field this year, but with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Also gone are other 2017 NFL Draft Picks Dorian Johnson, Ejuan Price, and Adam Bisnowaty. The Panthers' offense, too, has changed with the team losing coordinator Matt Canada in the offseason to LSU. Defensively, Pitt brings an almost entirely new defensive line to Happy Valley and also suffered some other personnel losses. And to make matters worse, in addition to losing other key contributors from last year, the Panthers are also still without Whitehead at safety, who has two more games to go on his suspension. You shouldn't need me to tell you that the Panthers team that defeated Penn State last year is markedly different from this one but there it is.

By contrast, the Nittany Lions team that Pitt faced early last year is different, too. The Panthers were fortunate to catch Penn State earlier in the season as the Nittany Lions improved as the year went along and wound up winning a Big Ten championship before losing in the Rose Bowl. Penn State's team is largely the same but a year older and a year better.

The Nittany Lions' offense is what should really concern Pitt fans. Running back Saquon Barkley is a legit a Heisman contender and he had 172 rushing yards in limited work against Akron. While he's the best player on the team, he may not even have the biggest day against the Panthers as the Pitt secondary proved they have much work to be done after giving up over 300 passing yards to Youngstown State. Quarterback Trace McSorely and his talented receivers could have an absolute field day against Pitt on Saturday. That's particularly true with the Whitehead loss as he's the best player in Pitt's shaky secondary.

The teams aren't only different as the environment will be as well. Pitt will take their show on the road and play in front of what should be a hostile environment after playing to a mostly pro-Pitt crowd last season. One good thing is that the Panthers did that last year when they traveled to Clemson and played extremely well, winning and becoming the only team to defeat the Tigers in their national championship season. But as stated above, the Panthers were just a different team last season.

When you add everything up, Penn State has no reason not to win this game. The Nittany Lions aren't only expected to win, but to win big. The game opened back in May with Pitt as nearly three-touchdown underdogs. Everything is aligned for them this year and my stance now is the same as it was earlier this year:

If you're Penn State, you better win that game

Don't get me wrong, I fully expect them to do just that. But all of the pressure is on them and a loss to Pitt, while not ruining their season (as Clemson proved last year), would be an embarrassing thing to try to explain away to recruits and fans. If you're the Nittany Lions, this is a game you should and must win without question. Heck, even a close win would be considered a disappointment on some level since they will enter the game as such heavy favorites.

If there's one thing Pitt has going for them, they should be able to play looser. The Panthers won last year's game and shouldn't be facing anywhere near the pressure that Penn State has this season. Pitt has absolutely no reason to not throw everything out there and just play to win. Penn State will be doing the same, obviously, but Pitt has no reason to be tight and restricted in any way. Worst case scenario, you lose a game that many expected you to drop and you move on to another non-conference game before the ACC season begins. Get on the field, play your guts out, and make every play count.

None of that is to suggest Pitt has no shot here as bigger upsets have happened. The Panthers knocked off Clemson on the road last season and, in a heated rivalry game, shocked West Virginia in 2007 as they appeared to be headed to a national championship game. But if the Panthers are going to win, they'll need an incredibly strong performance, some turnovers, and probably a good bit of luck to pull off an upset here. Penn State has the better team and an added bit of motivation after losing last season's contest. And getting the game at home, there's little doubt as to why they are the big favorites going into this one.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Fake spike caps UCLA’s rally from 34-point deficit

UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen took a page out of Dan Marino’s playbook as the Bruins rallied from a 34-point deficit to stun Texas A&M 45-44 on Sunday.

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The Aggies, trailing 44-38, had converted a fourth-and-6 play and 43 seconds remained when Rosen came to the line and appeared to call for a spike to stop the clock. Instead, Rosen lofted a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Lasley in the left corner of the end zone to tie the game, and UCLA converted the extra point to seal its improbable victory.

The touchdown pass capped a 10-play, 66-yard drive that started with 1:56 to play. Rosen led the Bruins on five straight touchdown drives in the second half. He passed for 491 yards and four touchdowns to erase a 44-10, third-quarter deficit.

Marino pulled off a similar play for the Miami Dolphins on Nov. 27, 1994. Trailing 24-21 with 38 seconds left, Miami had the ball on the New York Jets’ 8-yard line. Marino ran to the line of scrimmage and yelled “clock,” motioning that he was going to stop the clock by a spike. Instead, Marino took the snap and lofted a touchdown pass to Mark Ingram to give the Dolphins a 28-24 victory.

Pitt players will again not be available to media in advance of Penn State game ... and we'll all live

Last year, head coach Pat Narduzzi raised quite a stir among local media when it was announced that Pitt's players would not be available to speak to the media before the Penn State game. The Panthers won the game 42-39 and Narduzzi is keeping the same policy this year.

In the weekly media briefing distributed by the athletics department, it was stated that coach Narduzzi would be the lone spokesperson for the program this week.

I can understand why this would cause a stir among the regular media that routinely cover the team on a daily basis. Having no player access limits what they can do from a storytelling standpoint to some degree. In addition, asking them to cover a team with no player access is, in a way, a bit unfair. But I'm not sure how much this really affects the fans. The media, of course, are developing these stories for fans and its readers so, in a roundabout sort of way, if the stories aren't as compelling, I suppose there's an argument that it hurts its readership. Aside from that, though, I just don't think this is much of a blow to the casual fan.

I can't speak for Narduzzi as to why he takes this approach but my guess is that it's about keeping his guys focused and to limit the possibility of one of them providing some bulletin board material. We can debate all day long if that really matters. And I suppose you can argue that, if the job of a college coach is to prepare his players (particularly ones with pro aspirations) to handle interviews in advance of big games, then Narduzzi is actually depriving them of that opportunity. But that's kind of a reach and at the end of the day, I just can't find it in myself to get too worked up over it.

Consider, too, that the chances of a player saying something so insightful that it needs to be out there for consumption is probably not worth the trouble of allowing for the possibility of somebody saying something that gives Penn State some ammunition. Can players provide decent insight? Sure. But, as a fan, I'm not sure that there's anything I need to hear from the players that's so valuable that it's worth risking someone saying something flippant and careless.

It's worth nothing that Pitt players have mostly avoided that pitfall and I can't think of too many instances where they said something that got them into trouble. Wide receiver Manasseh Garner made some ill-advised comments about the team not playing for the fans back in 2014 and even in that instance, it wasn't bulletin board material for another team. But just because stupid comments don't happen often doesn't mean that the team is immune to them. You get anyone talking enough and it's possible.

We'll all live without Qadree Ollison telling us how much energy there was for the game last year. Or Max Browne's Penn State parallels since his USC team faced them last year in the Rose Bowl. Or Dane Jackson admitting the secondary needs to step up. I just don't need any of that. Yes, it might be helpful to have to generate content, like when some players talked about taking their foot off the pedal after Youngstown State. But do I need that? Nah.

The driver here for future precedent will always be how Pitt performs in these games. If the Panthers go out and shock the world here, that will only make fans care less about how Narduzzi runs the team. If the approach works and he's winning with it, I'm not sure how you demand that he make the players available. Now, if Pitt goes out and loses the next two games with Penn State, maybe the pressure to make players accessible deepens.

Do I think it's an overreaction? Probably. But here's the thing - Narduzzi is in charge of the football program and that means operating it in what he views are its best interests. If that's how he feels about this, it's fine by me. It's not illegal and, while it might seem like paranoia to some, Narduzzi is the head coach. Let him run the freaking program. Lifespans of coaches are short. In addition to running a clean program and making sure his players get an education, his job is to win as many games as possible. If he genuinely thinks this gives him an advantage, I've got no beef with that - even if I might not necessarily agree.

My general theory is to let a coach run the program the way he/she thinks is best. As long as this doesn't turn into a dictatorship where he's restricting player access for a bunch of games, I'm generally okay with it. Frankly, what I really want more from Narduzzi on is transparency with injuries. This nonsense?


Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Cardiac Hill Poll of the Week: Have you changed your expectations for the football team after Pitt's narrow Youngstown State win?

This weekend, Pitt narrowly won its season opener against Youngstown State. After jumping out to an early 21-0 lead, the Panthers were forced to head to overtime where they finally put away the Penguins, winning 28-21.

As bad as things were, Pitt is still 1-0, which is what was expected would be the team's record at this point. But did the team's poor second half play make you think twice about the team's ability to be competitive this year? Weigh in using the poll below.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.
Poll After the Youngstown State game, do you feel any worse about the team's prospects for having a successful year? Much worse Somewhat worse A little worse No   0 votes | Results

Cardiac Hill Panther of the Game: Qadree Ollison

While you could make a solid case for a few guys, including safety Bricen Garner, I ultimately selected running back Qadree Ollison as the Panther of the game.

Overall, Ollison didn't have a monster game, but I'm not sure that anyone did, to be honest. Ollison led the running backs with 91 yards on 22 carries, averaging just over four yards per attempt. He also tallied two of Pitt's four touchdowns but what pushed him over the top for me was his team-high five catches for 35 yards. To lead the team in both rushing and receiving was a little too much to ignore.

I strongly considered Garner. He had four tackles, a pass breakup, and, most importantly, the game-clinching interception at the end. But Ollison just did a little more and was the biggest reason Pitt got out to an early lead.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Blind player snaps extra point during USC’s victory

A college football player who has been blind since age 12 snapped for a successful extra point Saturday, helping the University of Southern California to a 49-31 victory against Western Michigan.

>> Read more trending news

Jake Olson entered the game with 3:13 to play in the fourth quarter. The Trojans’ Marvel Tell III had just returned an interception for a touchdown, allowing Olson to make his first appearance in a regular-season game. The Western Michigan players were aware that Olson was in the game and did not rush the kick. Olson delivered a perfect snap and USC converted for the final margin of victory.

“I loved being out there,” Olson said. “It was an awesome feeling, something that I'll remember forever, getting to snap at USC as a football player.”

Olson was born with retinoblastoma, a form of eye cancer, and he lost his left eye when he was 10 months old, ESPN reported. In 2009, at age 12, he learned he needed surgery to remove his right eye, which would completely cost him his vision. 

USC coach Clay Helton had praise for Western Michigan coach Tim Lester, who signed off on Olson's debut.

“Very special moment for us with a very special guy at the end of the game,” Helton said. “I commend and I thank Coach Lester and the entire Western Michigan family for the honor of getting what I think is a very special person in Jake Olson in.”

“It was very special, hearing my name being called over the P.A. system,” Olson said.

USC alumnus Clay Matthews, who plays for the Green Bay Packers in the NFL, saluted Olson on Twitter, calling it “an inspiration.”

Pitt players talk easing up in second half against Youngstown State

The Panthers won a close opener against Youngstown State on Saturday, 28-21. If it looked like the Panthers eased up a little, from the sounds of some players, it appears they did.

"It's a matter of being on the gas pedal," admitted quarterback Max Browne. "And probably if we are being honest, easing off a little bit."

"Luckily we finished it out."

I'm not going to kill Browne or even the players. Pitt is playing with a lot of young guys and, as I said earlier, when the coaches are not exposing all of their plays, they are essentially saying that this opponent isn't as good as the next one. Seeing guys take it easy a little bit after a 21-0 lead isn't what you want to see at all, but I can't say I'm really surprised by it. These aren't professionals, they're college kids.

Running back Darrin Hall also knows the offense could have played harder in the second half.

"As an offense, we need to come out hungrier," Hall said. "We might've taken a back seat and we should've come out harder. We should've made more plays."

If Pitt had shown a little more of the playbook in the second half, perhaps they could have had an easier time of things. But much of it was about effort, as Browne and Hall acknowledged. The good news is that it didn't ultimately cost the team a victory.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Should Pitt continue downscaled offense in openers?

Under Pat Narduzzi, Pitt has made a habit of scaling back the offense in the Panthers' opener. Last year, the strategy seemed to pay off. The team comfortably won a largely boring contest over Villanova, 28-7. More importantly, James Franklin and Penn State seemed to be caught off guard by a dynamic Pitt offense a week later that showed a new arsenal of plays.

This year, the Panthers clearly took the same approach to the opener this year against Youngstown State. Unfortunately for the team, it nearly came back to bite them. Pitt blew a 21-0 and, after going scoreless in the second half, allowed the Penguins to tie the game, sending it to overtime. The Panthers ultimately prevailed but could easily have lost the game.

I understand Narduzzi's decision to hold things back and not publicize them for the Panthers' biggest opponents. But the reality is that the strategy could backfire and even cost the team an embarrassing loss.

The counter, of course, is that even with a scaled back version of the offense, Pitt should be able to win anyway. They have more talent than FCS teams and, even though they shouldn't need it, they even have an added advantage playing them at home.

I would agree. Here's the problem.

Pitt's coaches are constantly telling us that every game counts. They are reinforcing that message to their players. But at the same time, they are holding certain plays back that could be beneficial. If you're a player, how do you take that message? And when you jump out to a 21-0 lead, I'm not sure how you don't start thinking to the next game if you're a 19-year-old kid that's essentially been told by the coaches that the opponent isn't good enough to warrant using all of your best plays.

I'm not saying that's the message the coaches are trying to send. I'm saying that when you're a college kid and you see that, coupled with a big lead, it would be easy to let up a little bit.

None of that excuses the players and they hopefully learned a valuable lesson after today's debacle. And, as stated, that strategy worked perfectly for the program last year. But after such a close call on Saturday, it makes you wonder if that's the right approach going forward.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Pitt needs overtime to defeat Youngstown State in opener, 28-21

Earlier this week, I wrote about Pitt having some potential issues against Youngstown State. They were a little shorthanded, a little banged up, and probably even looking ahead a little to a big matchup against Penn State next week. But despite all of that, I didn't expect the level of nail-biting we saw today as Pitt needed overtime to defeat FCS team Youngstown State, 28-21 on Saturday.

The Penguins are one of the better FCS teams out there. They played in the national championship final last year and are expected to challenge to win it all this season. Coming into the season, they were ranked in the top ten in the FCS' major polls. If you're looking for a silver lining, though, that's not necessarily it. Pitt should still be defeating teams like that pretty handily - especially at home.

Starting the game, Pitt looked pretty motivated. I don't know that I'd say they were dominant, but they got out to a 21-0 halftime lead and looked like they had the game in hand. Things fell apart after that, likely due at least in part to some mental lapses and looking ahead to next week a little early. If I'm taking anything positive away from this besides the team winning, it's probably that for a half, they did exactly what they needed to do, even if in unspectacular fashion.

Keep in mind, too, that Pitt wasn't giving up anything on offense in terms of trick plays, etc. Like last year's game was against Villanova, the Panthers really ran a pretty straightforward offense without much in the way of innovation. Pitt's offense needs to be better and I expect it will be once they open things up a little more. I would be very surprised if the offense is as bad as it looked for much of today.

The bad? Well, there was plenty of that.

First, if we're dismissing this as simply Pitt looking past the Penguins, that in itself should be discouraging and shows a lack of maturity. The Panthers can't afford to look past anyone and you'd like to think that after getting out ahead 17-3 and then seeing Youngstown State match scores with them in 2015 that they'd have kept the pressure on. But this is an almost entirely new team with new faces and if they didn't know that taking your foot off the gas is a problem, they should now.

Next, the secondary was the team's fatal flaw last year and I didn't see much today to make me think that it's much improved. it will, of course, get better when Jordan Whitehead returns from suspension, but that unit didn't have a great day. They not only gave up more than 300 passing yards to an FCS team but also managed to leave several guys open that dropped passes or were over/underthrown. The numbers could have been even higher.

Bricen Garner thankfully came away with the game-ending interception but aside from that, it's hard to be encouraged by how they played today. It's only one game and Pitt was missing its best player in the secondary. But this is still an FCS team that shouldn't have been able to move the ball as much as they did in the second half.

One problem for me was that Pitt didn't get nearly enough pressure. Amir Watts was credited with a sack and while there were some hurries recorded, I'm guessing, that didn't help the secondary get a breather. Pitt absolutely has to get more pressure than that against an FCS team. We can scream about the secondary until we're blue in the face but if the quarterback isn't under enough pressure, those guys would get burned beat there even if the Panthers had All-Americans on the field.

Looking at Pitt's own offense, it's really difficult to judge those guys since I think the playbook was scaled back so much. But I came away really unimpressed. Max Browne was lackluster, completing only about half of his passes and most of his work was limited to shorter routes so it should have been higher. Seven of his 17 receptions went to running backs and the starting wide receivers Jester Weah and Quadree Henderson each caught only one pass.

I also wasn't impressed with the running backs today. We did see Henderson get his share of carries as Pitt kept that part of the offense from Matt Canada's system, but the backs as a whole were underwhelming. Qadree Ollison led the way with 91 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries but he, Darrin Hall, and freshman A.J. Davis, who saw playing time on some crucial fourth downs, finished under four yards per carry with Ollison and Hall getting the bulk of the workload. All three are serviceable but it's not hard to figure out that replacing James Conner is harder than it looks. And where we're at with Chawntez Moss is no idea. He looked explosive earlier on last year and now he's losing carries to a true freshman and can't even get on the field when the top two guys are having only an average day?

One word of caution I'll throw out there is, hold off on the crucifying Shawn Watson bandwagon. Pitt's new offensive coordinator will take a lot of heat this week, but you might remember that Matt Canada took some last year after a pretty lackluster opener against Villanova, too. That turned out to be premature. I'm not saying Pitt's offense will turn around like that one did. Canada had several NFL players on his offense last year and it remains to be seen how many will come of this group. But I'm not ready to throw Watson under the bus yet until we see the team take on bigger chunks of the playbook.

The special teams were also somewhat disastrous with freshman Alex Kessman missing both of his field goal attempts. If you thought the shaky kicking was leaving town with the departure of Chris Blewitt, think again. This is something Kessman and Pitt are going to have to figure out. One of those kicks was inside of 30 yards and those have to be practically gimmes.

I don't think this should be all about panic. Like I said, Pitt didn't show much on offense all day long and I think part of their second-half issues were about taking the foot off the gas a little. But what frustrated me was seeing some of the individual struggles by guys on offense like Browne, the receivers, and the running backs. Even in a vanilla offense, those guys should look better playing an FCS team. Today was a good example of just how hard it is to replace an NFL quarterback, an NFL running back, and two NFL offensive linemen.

Long way to go, obviously.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Thousands of college football fans wave to patients at new children's hospital

When the new University of Iowa Children’s Hospital was built, overlooking Kinnick Stadium, officials suggested that Hawkeye fans wave to patients.

Hawkeye fans did not let the kids down.

>> Need something to lift your spirits? Read more uplifting news

At the end of the first quarter of Saturday's game against the Wyoming Cowboys, thousands of Hawkeye fans turned to wave at the young patients looking out the windows of the hospital.

The Hawkeyes and the University of Iowa are participating in a "Touchdowns for Kids" campaign, in which fans can donate a dollar or more for every time the Hawkeyes score a touchdown, KWWL reported.

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