Kevin Gorman: If Pitt wants to revive Penn State rivalry, the Panthers need to win
Pat Narduzzi and James Franklin spent the week talking about what makes Pitt-Penn State a great rivalry and all of the reasons why they can’t continue to play each other.
That makes perfect sense, especially given the absurdity that Pitt and Penn State will play for the 100th time Saturday, and it might be the last time for the foreseeable future.
I won’t say for the last time because this rivalry is bigger than Narduzzi and Franklin, bigger than athletic directors Heather Lyke and Sandy Barbour and bigger than all of their excuses.
They are but blips in a century of college football games between a pair of proud Pennsylvania programs, and you would have to hope common sense ultimately will prevail.
“We’re open to having discussions,” Franklin said. “But it’s got to equally make sense for both parties. It’s got to make sense for Pitt. It’s got to make sense for Penn State.”
That a great rivalry is about to be interrupted for the second time makes no sense to me. And I understand both sides as a native Pittsburgher who has covered Pitt and Penn State alumnus who has covered the Nittany Lions.
It comes down to this: If the rivalry is to be revived, Pitt must win. And keep winning.
The Panthers don’t need to beat the Nittany Lions just for years of bragging rights, although Pitt fans would love nothing more than an encore to chanting 12-0 for the next 15 years even if Penn State’s comeback was to remind its foes about 48-14.
When it comes to college football rivalries, you need only to cite the score. Both sides know exactly what the implications represent in a rivalry that regularly involved one of the schools ranked as the nation’s No. 1 team between 1976 and ‘86.
Therein is the greater implication: They both killed each other’s last shot at a national championship, with Penn State handing top-ranked Pitt its only loss in that 48-14 game in 1981 and Pitt beating Penn State, 42-39, in its 2016 Big Ten title season.
That was the resumption of the rivalry. Penn State has won the past two meetings: 33-14 in 2017 at Beaver Stadium and 51-6 last year at Heinz Field.
“The games,” Franklin said, “have been awesome.”
That’s one reason the rivalry should continue. Another is it’s for the good for the commonwealth, as every game provides a sellout that benefits businesses in the state.
“Of course we all want to play this game,” Narduzzi said. “It’s a big game. It’s another game for us, but it’s a big game because it’s a rivalry game, in state. I’m going to emphasize to our kids, you might be the last team to ever play this game. It might be.”
Cue the excuses. We hear about how the Big Ten teams playing nine conference games to the ACC’s eight has created a scheduling conflict. We hear how Penn State needs to play seven home games for financial reasons — padding its record against pushovers in Idaho and Buffalo — so scheduling the same Power 5 opponent annually leaves little wiggle room.
We hear how the 15-year hiatus caused a generational gap. We hear how Penn State fans don’t view Pitt as a true rival anymore, instead focusing on Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State even though Michigan is the archrival to Michigan State and Ohio State more than any of them is to Penn State.
We hear Franklin suggest a neutral-site game, which is maybe the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard. Not only would it take away home-field advantage for both sides, but it’s a scenario to which he knows that Pitt would never agree.
And it’s all absolute nonsense.
But Penn State holds the upper hand. Not just in its 52-43-4 all-time record against Pitt, but in its national status. The Nittany Lions (2-0) are ranked No. 13 in the AP poll and No. 11 by the coaches. Pitt (1-1) isn’t even receiving votes, hasn’t finished a season in the final AP rankings since 2009 and only three times since 1990.
That puts Penn State in a no-win situation. A victory is expected, so a loss to an unranked opponent can be crushing. That makes it counterproductive. The view in Happy Valley is there is nothing to be gained by playing Pitt, much less beating the Panthers, except a sellout.
That could be viewed as symbolic of Penn State’s perceived superiority, but the numbers don’t lie. Since 1968, the Nittany Lions have been nationally ranked all 23 times they beat Pitt; the Panthers haven’t been ranked in any of their past five victories.
If Pitt wants to extend the series against Penn State, the Panthers need not only to beat the Nittany Lions in this finale but become a national powerhouse program again.
That’s the best way to force the unrivaled to revive the rivalry.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .