The mantra inside Penn State’s Lasch Building headquarters is pretty clear. Stir up no controversy. Rattle no cages. Keep things consistent heading into Saturday’s showdown with Pitt.
Outside the program? The opinions are just a bit stronger with the Panthers coming to town.
“This weekend I hope Penn State put up 60 on Pitt,” former Nittany Lions linebacker Nyeem Wartman wrote on Twitter. “Seriously hate Pitt more than Temple, and I tore my ACL twice against them.”
“Well,” he added a minute later, “I mean Pitt fans.”
Penn State players, staffers and fans alike have had a year to stew over last September’s 42-39 loss to the Panthers in Pittsburgh. Pitt supporters have had a year to revel that the game very likely kept the Lions out of the College Football Playoff.
Pitt also won the last meeting before the rivalry went on a 16-year hiatus, blanking Penn State 12-0 back in 2000. The Lions’ last win in the series, then, was also the last time it was played in Beaver Stadium.
Penn State entered the 1999 contest with a team ranked in the top five nationally and heavily favored against the Panthers, having slaughtered Akron the week before.
That certainly sounds familiar.
What Lions coach James Franklin and his staff are trying to avoid is what happened next. Despite being a 34-point favorite at home as the No. 2 team in the polls, Penn State needed a last-minute field goal block from LaVar Arrington to hold on for a 20-17 win.
This time around, the Lions sit at No. 4 with the betting line rising up to 21 this week following Pitt’s overtime struggles with FCS Youngstown State.
Though it’s impossible to shield his players from all of the outside noise surrounding the game right now, Franklin is giving it a shot.
“It’s all the stuff I see on social media right now,” Franklin told reporters in State College after practice on Wednesday. “All the fans (going back and forth). It’s stuff I wish wasn’t going on. I want to try and insulate our players from that as much as I possibly can and keep them focused on what we do.
“That’s why our approach is the way it is. That stuff, I can’t control it, so I don’t spend too much time concerned about it. Because I can’t change it. I can’t shut them off from it. I can’t control what other people do.”
Not that Franklin expects his players to be emotionless robots.
Until the Lions get back out on the field against the Panthers, last year’s loss is still going to sting.
“Anytime you take a loss, especially in the fashion we did in such a close game, it’s always pretty tough,” said senior linebacker Jason Cabinda, who was forced to watch the 2016 game unfold from the sideline with a broken thumb. “You think about just one play you could’ve made or how you could’ve impacted it. Being on the sideline is the toughest.
“But we have an opportunity to correct that loss and change that.”
THREE AND OUT
Wheel it out
The wheel route had been a valuable weapon in Penn State’s offense under Joe Moorhead with opposing defenses struggling to keep up with Saquon Barkley streaking out of the backfield and down the sideline as a receiver.
Barkley gained 43 yards with that route against Akron. He also scored touchdowns on it last season in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin and, as it so happens, against Pitt.
Moving into this season, the Panthers — who are without a handful of defensive starters because of injury and disciplinary reasons — did not defend it well in last week’s overtime win over FCS Youngstown State.
“I’m sure we’re going to see some wheel routes,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “I don’t know if you guys know what a wheel route is, but we saw a couple the other day. But we’ll have that ironed out in every different possible formation you can see.
“Everybody has got weaknesses, and that’s what we do as coaches. We find out where we are, you measure it, and then you find the right medicine for it. So we have medicine for it.”
For the second straight year, Pitt has a high-profile grad transfer at quarterback. Last year, it was Tennessee’s Nathan Peterman. This time it’s USC’s Max Browne, who opened last season as the Trojans’ starter before being surpassed by Sam Darnold.
A former five-star recruit who had been rated as the country’s top pocket passer coming out of high school, Browne is 6-foot-5 and boasts a big arm — though the Panthers kept the passing game pretty vanilla in last week’s opener.
“That’s a guy who started at USC,” Cabinda said. “I would say he’s not as mobile as Darnold, but he’s got a good arm and he makes good reads.”
Fans getting to their seats before kickoff will notice a white tarp hanging from the upper facade on the east side of Beaver Stadium.
Penn State will be unveiling the “2016” up next to all of the school’s other landmark seasons in honor of the Big Ten championship squad. A flyover will also be held after the national anthem.
In addition, the Lions will honor the 35th anniversary of the 1982 national championship team at halftime. Todd Blackledge, the quarterback of that team, will be providing color commentary for the game on the ABC broadcast.
Eight members of that team — which edged Pitt 19-10 to punch a ticket to the Sugar Bowl against Georgia — will be signing autographs above Gate A inside the stadium from 1:30-2:45 p.m.