Penn State, Pitt Finished Strong But Wind Up Bowl Game Underdogs

Nittany Lions face Utah in Rose Bowl three days after Panthers play UCLA in Sun Bowl
james franklin sean clifford

Penn State and Pitt both won every game they played in November, both got matched in bowl games against two of the top teams from the Pac-12, and both are underdogs to win — the Nittany Lions by about a field goal and Panthers by a touchdown.

Pitt accepted a bid Sunday to play UCLA Dec. 30 in the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, while Penn State will face Utah in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2.

Pennsylvania’s top NCAA football programs both finished the season impressively, landing them strong opponents in more significant bowls than might have been expected after each lost on Oct. 29.

While the games are weeks away, the online sportsbooks wasted no time in posting odds, which have already shifted a bit this week with some books widening the Penn State-Utah point spread and narrowing the gap between Pitt and UCLA.

Things can change further before the games kick off — particularly in the world of NCAA bowl games, which many top players opt to skip to focus on their NFL Draft potential. Below we cover where things stood for the two games as of Thursday morning.

First meeting could be a doozy

Penn State and Utah have never met in football, and it’s an interesting twist that brought them together to play in Pasadena on Jan. 2.

When the Utes (now 10-3 and ranked No. 7 by AP) beat USC 47-24 in the Pac-12 title game, it enabled Ohio State — which had seemed destined for a Rose Bowl appearance — to nudge ahead of the Trojans in rankings and earn a College Football Playoff semifinal slot. The Nittany Lions (No. 9 and 10-2) took the Buckeyes’ spot in what remains a top bowl game destination.

The game will be Utah’s second straight Rose Bowl appearance, after a 48-45 loss to Ohio State last year, while Penn State’s last Pasadena trip came at the end of the 2016 season in a similarly thrilling and high-scoring 52-49 loss to USC.

Though the Nittany Lions finished strong this year after losses only to national title contenders Michigan and Ohio State, the oddsmakers consistently list Utah as a small favorite. Nearly all had Penn State as a 2.5-point underdog early in the week, but now someone backing PSU can get 3 points from DraftKings, BetMGM, Caesars Sportsbook, Betway, and sites using Kambi odds (Barstool Sportsbook, BetRivers, betPARX, and Unibet).

The best moneyline return betting on the Nittany Lions would be the +130 offered by PointsBet, Caesars, and Betfred. BetMGM has the highest points total at 52.5, while an “over” bettor willing to accept vig above the standard -110 could go to FOX Bet, FanDuel, or the Kambi sites to get 51.5.

Once and for all, it will be Sean Clifford’s final game wearing the blue and white after the sixth-year senior and four-year starter has amassed enough career yardage and passing touchdowns to set school records for those.

For Penn State to win against a top-tier Utah defense, however, it likely needs an elite performance from not just him but the sensational freshman running back duo of Nicholas Singleton (Big Ten Freshman of the Year) and Kaytron Allen, who combined for 1,771 yards and 19 TDs.

The one notable opt-out for Penn State thus far is cornerback Joey Porter Jr., who is expected to be one of the top defensive secondary picks in the NFL Draft.

Utah beat USC twice this year while suffering losses to Florida, UCLA, and Oregon. Its quarterback, Cameron Rising, was the Pac-12 title game MVP by throwing for 310 yards and three TDs. Freshman running back Ja’Quinden Jackson ran for 105 yards and two TDs in that contest.

Quarterback shift at Pitt

The Pitt program has already seen some interesting developments since finishing the regular season with four straight wins and an 8-4 record. Its quarterback, Kedon Slovis, announced he is entering the transfer portal and will miss the Sun Bowl, while future starter Phil Jurkovec — himself announcing a transfer from Boston College — won’t be a Panther until next year.

That likely leaves coach Pat Narduzzi starting seldom-used redshirt senior Nick Patti, who was in a similar experience a year ago when replacing opt-out Kenny Pickett in the Peach Bowl, only to get injured early in that game.

UCLA, meanwhile, still has uncertainties surrounding whether its top two offensive stars — quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and running back Zach Charbonnet — will suit up or sit out of the Sun Bowl.

For now, the majority of sportsbooks list Pitt as a 6.5-point underdog, while most were using 7 with their initial lines. For Pitt bettors, that latter, bigger number can still be obtained at BetMGM or at Barstool and the other Kambi sites.

The best moneyline return on Pitt comes at either DraftKings or Betway, at +230. The over/under is mostly 57.5, with the Kambi sites, DraftKings, and Betway slightly higher at 58.

Considering their quarterback situation, the Panthers may rely even more than usual on the ACC’s leading running back, Israel Abanikanda, who had 1,431 rushing yards and 20 TDs.

Aside from transfer/opt-out issues, Pitt’s usually staunch defense will be missing the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year, Calijah Kancey, due to injury.

Coached by Chip Kelly, UCLA (No. 18 and 9-3) started the season with six straight wins before dropping three of its last six. Two of the losses were close contests against USC and Arizona.

The Bruins have had a powerful offense with dual-threat Thompson-Robinson supported by Charbonnet, as the team averaged 503.8 yards per game and scored 40 or more points seven times.

While Pitt and UCLA haven’t played one another in half a century, they had an interesting cross-country rivalry playing nearly every year from 1958-72, with UCLA winning nine of the 14 games.

Photo: Dan Rainville via Imagn Content Services


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