The Penn State-Pitt rivalry, which dates back to the presidency of Grover Cleveland, is about to get another installment. The Nittany Lions and Panthers face off on Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium, where Penn State looks to avenge its 42-39 loss last season.
The 2016 edition was a thriller for sure, but over the course of 97 meetings there have been brawls, broken droughts and solidified national title hopes
Here we break down the top-5 games in a rivalry that’s spanned 124 years.
No. 5: Oct. 3, 1896: Penn State 10, Pitt 4
This was when it all began. Technically, the rivalry started three years earlier when the Nittany Lions beat Pitt 32-0 in their first-ever meeting. But this game caused tempers to really flare. George Hoskins, a three-year letterwinning center at Penn State, was also the Nittany Lions’ first-ever coach from 1892-95. But in 1896, he left for Pitt. That reportedly led to fights breaking out on the field in the 1896 meeting. Good ole “Doc” Hoskins stirring the pot.
No. 4: Nov. 22, 1986: No. 2 Penn State 34, Pitt 14
Speaking of fights and stirring the pot, we’ve got this nutty affair from 1986. Now as far as being a competitive game, this one wasn’t; the Nittany Lions beat an unranked Panther squad en route to their second national championship. But with five fights, three ejections and Joe Paterno running across the field to break up a scuffle, this one was memorable. Penn State was up 20 with four minutes to go when Pitt punt returner Teryl Austin tossed the football into the facemask of Penn State’s Brian Chizmar. His teammates defended him, and a brawl broke out. Penn State players ran over to the emptied Pitt bench, while Paterno did the same trying to break it up. “I’ve never been in a football game with Pitt when we had so much of that kind of stuff,” Paterno said after the game. Sure, the scoreboard showed a blowout. But what transpired on the field showed a heated rivalry.
No. 3: Nov. 26, 1982: No. 2 Penn State 19, No. 5 Pitt 10
After a come-from-behind win a year earlier against Pitt — we’ll get to that in a bit — Todd Blackledge did it again. The Penn State quarterback, along with running back Curt Warner, led the Nittany Lions to a nine-point win that secured their spot as the country’s No. 1 team. Penn State trailed 7-3, but a 31-yard touchdown pass from Blackledge to Kenny Jackson gave the Nittany Lions a lead they wouldn’t surrender. Blackledge finished with 149 passing yards on 10 attempts, a modest-yet-effective showing. Warner had 118 rushing yards on 22 carries, and Nick Gancitano chipped in four field goals for the Nittany Lions. “Now it’s the Sugar Bowl for the national championship,” Warner said at the time. And, of course, Penn State took advantage of that opportunity, beating Georgia for the program’s first-ever national title.
No. 2: Nov. 26, 1976: No. 1 Pitt 24, No. 16 Penn State 7
Like the 1982 matchup, this led to a national championship berth and eventual title victory. But in terms of the rivalry’s big picture, this was more important than what happened six years later. For the first time in 11 tries, Pitt beat Joe Paterno. The coach took over the Nittany Lions in 1966 and, for a decade straight, the Nittany Lions dominated, outscoring the Panthers 394-135 over that span. But the 1976 meeting made it a more compelling rivalry. The game was tied 7-7 at halftime with Penn State bottling up Heisman winner Tony Dorsett. However, Pitt coach Johnny Majors moved Dorsett to fullback in the second half — the most important coaching adjustment in Pitt history. Dorsett ripped Penn State for 173 yards in the second half as Pitt ousted the Nittany Lions. Majors, Dorsett and the Panthers went on to beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl for the program’s first national title since 1937.
No. 1: Nov. 28, 1981: No. 11 Penn State 48, No. 1 Pitt 14
This has to go down as the most memorable matchup of the storied rivalry. Penn State had a solid team in 1981; the Nittany Lions beat Nebraska and Notre Dame and owned an 8-2 record heading into this game. But Pitt was undefeated, a team that belonged in the national championship game. The Panthers were seven-point favorites, one win away from playing for the title. And it looked as if they would, too. Penn State trailed 14-0 in the first quarter — but thanks to an interception in the end zone, Pitt quarterback Dan Marino looked human. Penn State took advantage, tying the game 14-14 before halftime. Led by Blackledge’s 262 passing yards, the Nittany Lions hung 34 unanswered points on the Panthers in the second half for a shocking win. Well, shocking in the way it happened; Penn State’s players knew they could beat Pitt. But all things considered, Nov. 28, 1981, was one of the greatest upsets in Penn State history — and the best game in this storied rivalry.