Pitt challenged to slow No. 4 Penn State's attack (Sep 09, 2017)
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- With nearly 20 reporters huddled around him last Saturday, Saquon Barkley wasn't in a mood to exalt his own performance.
Sure, Penn State's star running back could have easily smiled and nodded when reminded of his day -- 246 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. Instead, he took the time to point out a mistake. Funny enough, Barkley's only flaw happened on an 80-yard burst.
That run could have been a tad longer and gone for another score had the junior not stepped ever-so-slightly out of bounds 7 yards shy of the goal line.
"I've got to improve," Barkley said. "I've got to find a way to get in the end zone. Be more aware of the spacing on the field, keep my feet inbounds and get in the end zone."
Barkley will be just part of the problem for Pittsburgh, which has the next shot at slowing the dynamic, do-it-all back when the Panthers visit No. 4 Penn State on Saturday. The Nittany Lions moved up two spots after their 52-0 demolition of Akron.
Pitt gave up 418 yards to FCS opponent Youngstown State last week, pulling out a 28-21 victory in overtime.
Barkley ran for 130 yards and five touchdowns against Pitt last season -- although the Panthers won 42-39.
"You'd better be sound," Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said.
"You'd better be in the right gaps. He'll jump out of a gap. You'll think he's going there, he'll go there. Everybody has got to be gap sound. You've got to get penetration in the backfield, and you load the box and then they've got the other things. They've got players outside, too."
Pitt's defense won't have suspended standout safety Jerome Whitehead or senior Quintin Wirginis. Both are serving three-game suspensions, and then it was revealed this week that Wirginis will miss the season due to a non-football injury.
Penn State has much more than just Barkley on offense.
Quarterback Trace McSorley is another Heisman candidate. He spread the ball around last week, and also led the offense with his feet early in the season opener.
As Akron stacked the box to try to limit Barkley, something McSorley believes Pitt will try, offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead called McSorley's No. 9.
Barkley didn't touch the ball on Penn State's first series but a few designed quarterback draws with McSorley steered the offense into early scoring position. From that point, the quarterback spread the ball around to eight receivers and completed 72 percent of his passes with two touchdowns to tight end Mike Gesicki.
"I think (it was) really just taking what the defense gave us early and not trying to force things early on," McSorley said.
"If a play call is not there, it's making it positive and getting positive yards. I think that's the best way that you can get the whole team into a flow. You get the ball moving five, six yards, kind of starting the game off on a good note, getting that first first down, then you can use your tempo to your advantage and keep rolling."
Going to Gesicki seems to work, too.
He and McSorley have hooked up for 12 completions for 191 yards and five touchdown over the last four games. It's not a good trend for the Panthers, who allowed Youngstown State tight end Kevin Rader to catch six passes for 100 yards last week.
It's the type of chemistry Pitt first-year starter Max Browne is looking to establish with his group of wideouts.
Browne, a graduate transfer from USC, completed 17 of 24 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown in overtime to lift Pitt to its Week 1 win. Jester Weah made the leaping grab over a Youngstown State defender in the end zone.
"I'd like to see him make a few more plays," Narduzzi said of Browne.
"He had a great run, and we encouraged him to run. There was another third down where he could have run just to make sure he didn't make a negative. ... There's a lot of little things, just fundamentals. Again, first time he's been under fire for over a year really."
Although Pittsburgh players have been restricted from talking to the media, as they were last year before this rivalry game, Browne expressed a bit of his opinion after his team's win over Youngstown State.
"I know you're supposed to hate them," he said, "and now I guess I do hate them."