Sequence of games links Pitt, Penn State
EL PASO, Texas — Call it the bowl within the bowls.
Never mind that No. 18 Pitt (9-3) is playing No. 24 Oregon State (8-4) on Wednesday in the 75th Brut Sun Bowl, and No. 6 Penn State (11-1) is playing No. 5 Southern Cal (11-1) on Thursday in the 95th Rose Bowl.
Because Pitt and Penn State haven't met on the football field since their rivalry ended with the Panthers' 12-0 victory in 2000, there will be more on the line for Pitt than securing its first 10-win season since 1981.
The Panthers are well aware that comparisons with their former nemesis will soon follow, thanks to six degrees of separation.
"There's been some small talk about that in the locker room, nothing that we're really too worried about," Pitt middle linebacker Scott McKillop said. "Our friends at Penn State, we can bust their chops and have fun with it. You've got to find some comparisons amongst teams since we don't play."
The loose logic works like this: If Penn State beat Oregon State, which beat Southern Cal, which beat Notre Dame, which lost to Pitt, which beat Iowa, which beat Penn State, then Pitt is better than Penn State.
But only if the Panthers beat Oregon State, and by 31 points.
Confused• You should be.
It's a meaningless equation, one that could easily be reversed. Consider: Oregon State beat Southern Cal, which beat Ohio State, which beat Minnesota, which beat Bowling Green, which beat Pitt in the season opener. Not to mention that Penn State beat Ohio State by seven.
Then again, Pitt holds the trump card because it beat Iowa by one point and Penn State lost to the Hawkeyes by the same margin. Unless, of course, Pitt loses to Oregon State, which would mean that all bets are off.
"Any given day, any team can beat another team," Oregon State defensive end Slade Norris said. "It's just how you come out. I don't think our game is really going to declare who is the better team between the two."
But even a Pitt coach with Penn State ties admits there's no harm in trying.
"I think the fans love that stuff," said Pitt assistant head coach/defensive line Greg Gattuso, who started at nose tackle on the Nittany Lions' 1982 national champions, "but the reality is ... point differentials don't really matter.
"To me, honestly, it's a side thing because winning the Sun Bowl and winning 10 games is more important. I think the fans are just excited about the bowl and the future. I know a lot of my (Penn State) teammates will be calling me, one way or another, messing around with me."
One Pitt player who received some insight into Oregon State is kicker Conor Lee, whose younger brother, Sean, is a Penn State linebacker sitting out this season with a knee injury. Conor said Sean warned him that the Beavers are much improved since their 45-14 loss at Penn State on Sept. 6.
"When they played Penn State, it was early in the year and they had to travel across the country, so he doesn't think we saw the 'real' Oregon State," Conor Lee said. "He thinks they're a really good football team."
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt shares that opinion. Although Wannstedt doesn't put much stock in the six-degrees-of-separation theory, he doesn't mind having an ulterior motive at his disposal in preparing the Panthers for the Sun Bowl, their first postseason appearance in his four seasons at the helm.
"As a coach, you're always looking for an edge, always looking for something to dangle out in front of them to really think a little deeper than just, 'We've got another game we've got to go out and win.' Any time you can find something that gives your football team an edge, it helps," Wannstedt said.
"I think the biggest thing is we know they're a heck of a football team and they beat USC. Any time our guys might think otherwise or question somebody they played or somebody they beat or didn't beat, everybody knows how good Southern Cal is. Our guys have an awful lot of respect for these guys and that it's going to be a heck of a football game."
One that has left at least one Pitt player wishing that, instead of using six degrees of separation, the Panthers could settle the score with Penn State the old-fashioned way. Tailback LeSean McCoy, a sophomore from Harrisburg who chose Pitt over Penn State, said his "dream" is for the Panthers to play the Lions before his career is over - with Joe Paterno on the PSU sidelines.
"I know who's the better team, so you don't need to do all that," McCoy said. "I want to play them so bad, not only just for my own personal reasons but just because it's always been a rivalry. It's crazy that the biggest schools in the state don't play each other. I want to play them."
McCoy also went as far as to predict a Pitt-Penn State outcome.
"It would be a blowout."