Rivalry? What rivalry? Penn State-Pitt is just another game
Maybe I’d feel differently if I still lived in Pennsylvania, rather than in North Carolina. But I doubt it.
Penn State-Pitt just can’t carry the weight it once did, back when both schools were independents and the late-season matchup could affect bowl bids and even have national championship implications.
That’s especially true given that the series went dormant for 15 seasons from 2001-15 and seems like it will again go dark after next year. Will it return? How soon? Does anyone really care?
Coach James Franklin, his assistants and the players give Saturday night’s game “Super Bowl” status only because it is currently the next game on the schedule.
And as longtime PSU columnist David Jones of the Harrisburg Patriot-News points out, there’s no reason Nittany Lions fans should expect anything different from out-of-state recruits who grew up knowing Pitt-Penn State mostly as a non-entity and just recently as an early season non-conference game — no different than playing any other mediocre ACC school, say, NC State.
Jones writes: “… how many of the out-of-state kids they inevitably sign do you think will give a damn about the Pitt-Penn State rivalry? They didn’t grow up here. If they had, they would have grown up without it because of its 16-year hiatus between 2000 and 2016. Why would it matter to them? Because they’re being told it should by of a bunch of middle-aged fans, a generation or more older than they, who remember the good ol’ days?”
Add in that Pittsburgh isn’t a college town. The Panthers, at best, play third fiddle to the Steelers and Penguins. Saturday’s game is at Heinz Field, home of the Steelers. Because of a Pirates’ baseball game earlier in the day, fans’ access to parking and tailgating space will be limited. Can one properly prepare for an 8 p.m. start if one cannot set up the grill and tap the keg until at least 5? THIS IS NOT COLLEGE FOOTBALL! Who would have thought we’d miss Pitt Stadium, gone for nearly two decades already.
Sure, Pitt was once Penn State’s biggest rival, but the matchup never was on the level of Alabama-Auburn or others in which both communities live and die with their college football programs.
Since 1950, Penn State is 33-14-2 against Pitt. The Panthers simply aren’t good enough or interesting enough to make this a serious rivalry game.
Since Joe Paterno’s first season as head coach in 1966, a Pitt victory can be said to have spoiled a PSU season only twice — in 1980 when No. 4 Pitt won 14-9 at No. 5 Penn State, and two years ago when the Panthers’ 42-39 thriller ultimately kept the Lions (unranked at the time) from making the Playoff.
The early ’80s was the golden age of the rivalry. In 1981, Penn State topped undefeated, Dan Marino-led Pitt 48-14. The following year, Todd Blackledge and the Lions again got the better of Marino and the Panthers, 19-10, on the way to their first national championship. During that three-year stretch, Pitt finished ranked No. 2, No. 4 and No. 10 in the final AP polls. PSU was No. 8, No. 3 and No. 1.
Those were the days.
But those days were more than three decades ago. Since 1982, Pitt has not had a team finish in the AP Top 10, has had 15 losing seasons (and four .500 records) out of 35 and churned through nine head coaches. Despite having a couple of down periods, Penn State during that same period has had 11 Top 10 finishes, 30 winning seasons, three head coaches and a national championship.
Rivalry? Be serious. Pitt has played crappy football in conferences far inferior to the Big Ten.
The Lions’ chief rival is Ohio State. We’ll know PSU is all the way back when the Buckeyes reciprocate the sentiment. And then it’ll really be on. Year after year. Often for huge stakes, within the B1G and beyond.
All that said, it still totally will stink if Pitt somehow pulls the upset and I have to listen to my best friend suddenly rave about a team he otherwise doesn’t really care about. So let’s go Lions, S— on Pitt! Then my best friend and I can come together to root for the Steelers, and all will be right with the world.