NCAAF Week 3: #9 Oklahoma State @ Pittsburgh, Preview and Prediction

In a rematch from this time last season, will this Big 12 vs ACC game prove as dramatic as the 45-37 thriller of a year ago?

Saturday, September 16th 2017, 12.00 PM ET – Having never played each other before, these two teams met for the first time early in the 2016 season, and if last year is anything to go by, the entertainment level could be high. The Cowboys won a dramatic high-scoring battle by 45-37. What can we expect from the rematch?

Week 2 Recap

Oklahoma State Cowboys – The Cowboys entered this season with a lot of hype as a very popular dark horse playoff contender. The optimism is significantly based around the return of their key playmakers on offense, led by Heisman contender Mason Rudolph at quarterback and one of the most dangerous big play receivers in the country in James Washington. The receiver group is stacked behind the number one threat though, and Justice Hill at running back is an emerging star in his own right. So far, through two games, the product is performing to expectation, having dominated Tulsa at home in the opener by 59-24, and followed that up with an easy rout of South Alabama on the road by 44-7.

Rudolph was prolific in throwing for 335 yards and three scores.  On route to those totals, he surpassed Brandon Weeden for the most passing yards in school history. By season’s end, he’ll set a mark that will take some beating. Hill was quiet, with only 11 rushes for 27 yards, but wasn’t really needed much more than that. The ground game wasn’t a feature overall in the game, as the OSU defense shut down the Jaguars rush attack by allowing just 41 yards at 1.5 yards per attempt.

Pittsburgh Panthers – Last time out saw the Panthers get dominated early to in-state rivals Penn State, falling 14-0 down early in the first quarter and never recovering. The Nittany Lions ran out 33-14 victors, leaving Pitt with a 1-1 record to start the season. The year before saw the Panthers beat Penn State in addition to pushing Oklahoma State early in the 2016 season, but this offense does not seem to have adjusted sufficiently to the loss of now-Bills quarterback Nathan Peterman.

Transfer quarterback for 2017, Max Browne, was efficient in the opening win over Youngstown State, but struggled against better opposition in Week 2. He completed under 60% of his passes, with two picks and no touchdowns. Qadree Ollison (pictured below vs Penn State) led the ground game with 96 yards at an impressive 6.4 yards per carry, continuing to feature running the ball seems wise going forward. The defense only managed to sack Trace McSorley once and allowed a strong Penn State run game, led by Saquon Barkley, to rush for 6.2 yards per carry.

Keys to the Game

The first few possessions – Pitt put themselves in a hole immediately against Penn State thanks to a pair of early touchdowns. A three-and-out, a forced turnover, even a couple holds for field goals, will likely need to occur once or twice in the opening quarter to allow the gameplan to remain in place. They can't immediately turn to Max Browne to begin slinging the ball through the air each drive. Pitt can't afford to let this game get out of hand quickly; the Panthers have the feel of a team built to hold a lead, more than one built for a shootout.

Keeping the ball out of Rudolph’s hands – It’s a statistic which some question the significance of with so many quick-strike offenses, but time of possession and ball control have to be considered. Especially when attempting to combat the ruthless attack that Mike Gundy’s side are capable of unleashing on any opposition. They ended up holding the ball for nearly two thirds of the game against Penn State, and while it didn’t help them on that occasion, if they can combine the first “key to the game” above, with a few clock-eating drives that they can finish with maximum points, then game on perhaps.

Justice Hill – The Cowboys’ run game tore up Tulsa in the first game of the season with 332 yards at a massive 8.97 yards per carry and four touchdowns. While the game was always in hand, that area of the offense was a little more subdued against South Alabama, including 4.41 per carry this time out. Hill was a star as a freshman last year, rushing for 1,142 yards, and the offensive balance is what makes this team so scary. Pitt have enough to worry about in facing the array of targets in the pass game, but if Hill can establish himself early, the Panthers will be in trouble.

Matchup to Watch

Cowboys receivers vs Panthers defensive backs – So much of the focus in this game is based on when the Oklahoma State offense is on the field facing the Pitt D, and with good reason. Washington is far from the only major threat that Rudolph will look to. Chris Lacy is a likely 2018 NFL Draft selection as well, while LSU transfer Tyron Johnson is a breakout candidate this year who already is averaging over 17 yards per catch this season. Marcell Ateman is a very useful jump ball and red zone target, while the shifty Jalen McCleskey is a nightmare to cover over the short to intermediate areas and over the middle of the field.  

Safe to say that the Pitt secondary has their work cut out. The Panthers are allowing 237.5 passing yards a game so far (80th nationally). Look to 5’9” senior corner Avonte Maddox to step up and make a few key plays; the undersized DB had three interceptions last year. The absence of suspended safety Jordan Whitehead will really be felt in this contest.

Prediction: Oklahoma State 42, Pittsburgh 24

This is not quite the same Panthers team that beat Clemson and Penn State last season, and that pushed this Oklahoma State team close as well. The Cowboys return their stars as well as important pieces on both sides of the ball from the previous year, while Pitt have lost a lot, not least offensive coordinator Matt Canada, even though they are still running the same offense essentially. Home advantage helps, and hopefully Pitt make a strong start to use the crowd to their advantage, but it’s difficult to see them containing this explosive Oklahoma State team for too long.

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Rebecca Rennie

RealSport College Football Editor, as well as writer and NFL Draft analyst. Fan of most sports, and of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Stanford Cardinal and Central Florida Knights.