What if Pitt loses to Penn State, but it’s a close game?
Here’s the thing — the most important thing — about the Pitt-Penn State game Saturday at Beaver Stadium:
The outcome matters, of course, but how Pitt competes against the 13th-ranked team in the nation counts just as much.
Unless the college football landscape changes dramatically over the next two months, Pitt won’t play a better team than Penn State in the regular season.
Pat Narduzzi won’t publicly accept a scoreboard loss. But if the Panthers can walk into Beaver Stadium and match the Nittany Lions blow for blow — even in defeat — there will be real hope for the final nine games.
“When you play good competition, it’s going to make you better,” Pitt’s coach said this week. “It hardens you. It prepares you for the future. It’s another game in our path that helps us prepare for a (ACC championship) run.”
With that in mind, here are five scenarios to watch Saturday:
1. Containing Hamler
Narduzzi has a history with KJ Hamler, a redshirt sophomore wide receiver/kick returner. He first spied him at a Michigan State camp and later tried to recruit him to Pitt.
“I remember sitting in the tower at Michigan State watching that guy run around as a sophomore (in high school), going, ‘Holy cow, that guy is a football player.’
“He’s impressive. We’ll have to know where he is all the time. They move him around quite a bit.”
Hamler was a freshman All-American as a kick returner last season, averaging 26.2 yards. He also had six games with four or more receptions. He has the potential to make any defense look silly.
2. Knowing Pickett
Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett might have sneaked up on Miami two seasons ago, but he’s been around long enough that Penn State has plenty of tape on him and experience defending him.
The key will be how much Pickett has changed since throwing for 55 yards against Penn State last season. He needs to improve on his 58.6 career completion percentage.
3. Feeling the loss?
So far, Pitt has produced an impressive pass rush, with nine sacks for a loss of 65 yards without injured Rashad Weaver and mostly without injured Keyshon Camp.
Defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman is wearing Aaron Donald’s Pitt number (97) with honor. With 31⁄2 sacks, he is one of only eight FBS players to reach that number this season. Penn State defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos is another.
Narduzzi has recruited enough depth on the line to keep a fresh wave of bodies in the game, but few teams can afford to lose half of their starting line without feeling ill effects.
Pitt can’t win without putting pressure on Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford.
4. Plenty to prove
Penn State doesn’t believe it has much to gain by beating Pitt. But the Panthers are Penn State’s only nonconference Power 5 opponent. From that standpoint, this is a big game for the Nittany Lions.
Pitt is the defending ACC Coastal champion, but it lost to No. 25 Virginia at home by two touchdowns. Virginia wasn’t nationally ranked at the time, but there’s still no shame in losing to, perhaps, the ACC’s second-best team. Narduzzi is 3-10 against ranked teams over the previous four seasons. He needs to reverse that trend.
5. PSU ‘D’ improved
Buffalo gained 424 yards and recorded 22 first downs last week against Penn State. Pitt ran for 245 yards in last year’s game.
There is too much talent and too much pride in the Lasch Building, the football team’s home, for that to continue.
Look for Penn State to crank up the intensity on defense.
Final score: Penn State 35, Pitt 13
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .