Before Penn State’s alma mater started playing and the victory bell started ringing, Pittsburgh’s players quietly disappeared into the tunnel at Beaver Stadium.
They looked straight ahead and showed no emotion as they walked off the field shortly after their 33-14 loss to the No. 4 Nittany Lions on Saturday. One year after celebrating a win over Penn State at Heinz Field, they listened to taunts from the home crowd in the final minutes of a game they trailed from start to finish.
“Of course it hurt, but we on to the next week,” Pitt defensive back Avonte Maddox said. “We still got a chance to win this ACC championship, and that’s our goal. Sunday, we going to come in, we going to learn from our mistakes, we going to move on to next week.”
Though the Panthers were ready to shift their focus to their upcoming matchup with Oklahoma State, they acknowledged the significance of Saturday’s rivalry game with the Nittany Lions. Penn State coach James Franklin, meanwhile, has consistently said he doesn’t view the game against the in-state foe any differently than any other game.
When asked about Penn State downplaying the rivalry with Pitt, Panthers running back Qadree Ollison dodged the question.
“I don’t know,” Ollison said, “you got to talk to them about that.”
Maddox didn’t hesitate to call the matchup a rivalry, saying it’s about deciding the better team in the state. Pitt defensive back Dennis Briggs, a Wilkinsburg, Pa., native, agreed with his teammate and noted the personal relationships between players on both sidelines — Pitt’s Damar Hamlin (Central Catholic) and Penn State’s Miles Sanders (Woodland Hills) battled in WPIAL play in high school just as Pitt’s Elijah Zeise (North Allegheny) and Penn State’s Troy Apke (Mt. Lebanon) did.
Briggs said he enjoyed “competing for the state” one year after the Panthers earned bragging rights with a 42-39 win.
After that game, Pitt players talked about their pride in being the top team in the state. They didn’t back down from discussing the rivalry in defeat Saturday.
“We come out there, it’s all heated as soon as it starts until the end of the game, so great crowd out there —109,000,” Maddox said. “Ain’t nothing you can do but call it a rivalry.”
Even quarterback Max Browne, a USC transfer, understood what Saturday’s game meant to Pitt. Panther alumni spoke to the team leading up to the game, and he had heard about Penn State long before Saturday.
“I think when I first got to Pittsburgh here eight months ago, I think someone told me, ‘All you got to do is beat Penn State,’” said Browne, who had bruising around his eye and cuts on his nose after the game. “Obviously it didn’t work out for us, but it’s a big rivalry.”
The Pitt sideline didn’t have much to celebrate after falling behind early against the Nittany Lions. The Panthers never threatened and watched helplessly as the final minutes ticked away. The Penn State fans started to enjoy the victory, with one taking aim at Pitt’s long snapper and another yelling “Game over, guys!” after the Panthers’ final offensive play.
They soon made their quiet walk off the field before discussing the latest result in the in-state rivalry.
As Briggs credited Penn State for the win, Maddox nodded in agreement. The Nittany Lions got the best of the Panthers this year, and though Pitt is looking ahead to Oklahoma State next week, they’re also looking forward to playing the Nittany Lions in 2018.
“We already can’t wait for next year,” Briggs said.