Penn State Football

Penn State, Pitt taking very different approaches to Saturday’s rivalry ... err ... series

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi and Penn State coach James Franklin talk after the Saturday, September 10, 2016 game at Heinz Field. Pitt won, 42-39.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi and Penn State coach James Franklin talk after the Saturday, September 10, 2016 game at Heinz Field. Pitt won, 42-39.

Two years ago, the largest recorded crowd to ever attend a Pittsburgh sporting event descended on Heinz Field for the renewal of the Penn State-Pitt series.

Defensive end Shareef Miller remembers fans yelling “everything in the book you can imagine.” Emotions ran high. Before the game, one Penn State student publication ran a column titled, “Penn State Deserves A Better Rival Than Pitt.” After the game, and the 42-39 Pitt victory, Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett drowned out an interview with Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley by chanting, “Hail to Pitt!”

The ingredients to a storied rivalry are here. Both coaching staffs have taken subtle jabs at each other over the last four years. Both teams boast more than 90 combined student-athletes who also played high school ball in the Keystone State. And, without a doubt, both fan bases — whose beloved universities are separated by just 135 miles — hate, hate, each other

But Penn State couldn’t take a more different approach to Saturday night’s road matchup (8 p.m., ABC) than Pitt. And vice versa.

To Franklin, it’s important to treat every game the same. Pitt is like beating Akron, Ohio State is like beating Kent State, and a win is a win. To Narduzzi, that’s a bunch of naive mumbo-jumbo.

“This game is important to the city of Pittsburgh,” Narduzzi told reporters Monday. “We want to keep the importance of what it is. Anybody who wants to argue and say this is no different than any other week — OK, it is. That’s a fact. If you want to ignore that, you can ignore it. It’s a big game.”

Narduzzi has said in the past that he wants his players to embrace the rivalry. He wants them to “understand what it’s all about.” In Happy Valley on Wednesday night, Nittany Lions cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields was asked what he understood about the series history.

“Not so much,” he said. “I just know last year and two years ago. But I know every time we play Pitt, it’s a good game.”

Penn State’s approach isn’t meant to be intentionally disrespectful. Franklin’s philosophy has long been to take the season one game at a time, so every week is the Super Bowl. He doesn’t want his team looking too far ahead, or too far behind.

Right or wrong, it’s hard to argue with his philosophy’s results. He teetered on the edge of the hot seat two years ago after the loss to “non-rival” Pitt, with the student-section chanting, “Fire Franklin!” early in the season. His team was 2-2 and didn’t receive a single vote in the top 25. But, by remaining level-headed and treating each game as its own season, Penn State rode a nine-game win streak to earn a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth.

For Penn State, it’s hard to label an opponent a rival if every game is treated the same. Ohio State fans tape over the M’s on campus for Michigan week. They don’t do it for Maryland. That’s why Saturday’s Penn State-Pitt game earned reactions like these from Nittany Lions players:

  • Wideout K.J. Hamler: “There’s no rivalry between us and Pitt.”
  • LB Koa Farmer: “To be honest, I don’t think we really see it as a rivalry.”
  • RB Miles Sanders, who’s from Pittsburgh: “I don’t look at it as a rivalry or nothing, but it’s a special game just playing against my friends that I know back home.”

Penn State refusing to label this a rivalry works for it. The proof is in Penn State’s results the last two seasons. But call it a rivalry, or whatever you want — there’s still something here.

Franklin opened his introductory press conference in 2014 by stating — four times — that he intended to “dominate the state.” In 2015, Narduzzi fired thinly veiled shots when he criticized the Penn State staff’s use of Christian Hackenberg. (“You could have a talented quarterback with a bad play-caller and make him look bad,” he said. “You see that around the country, some closer than others.”) That same year, before the series even started back up, the teams’ two offensive line coaches traded jabs on Twitter, over who was Pennsylvania’s team.

That back-and-forth hasn’t stopped. Earlier this week, Narduzzi appeared to take a shot at Penn State safety Lamont Wade, a true sophomore who played in 13 career games. When asked on his radio show what he saw from the former Pitt recruiting target and Clairton native, Narduzzi replied,” You don’t see him a whole lot. You don’t see him a lot out there.”

Pitt’s not afraid to label Saturday night — the first Pitt-PSU game under the lights since 1987 — as a huge game, or the two teams as bigger rivals. Pitt linebacker Quintin Wirginis recalled earlier this week how his older brothers told him when he was younger, “You can’t pick Pitt and Penn State. You got to choose one.”

“Just the electricity that came with that whole week and this week, too,” Wirginis said, referring to the 2016 game and this one,” it shows you how much this game means to people.”

It’s the kind of game, Narduzzi said, where you either “walk the streets or you’re going to walk the alleys after the game.” It’s big enough where at least some Penn State fans will buy Pitt season tickets to guarantee their seats.

Franklin is right to treat this game like any other because it’s worked for him. But that doesn’t mean it is like any other game. This is the 99th meeting between the two schools. The first took place in 1893, when the American flag had 44 stars and the NFL was still 27 years away from its founding.

One of Penn State’s greatest upsets came against Pitt and Dan Marino. One of Pitt’s most memorable touchdowns came against Penn State. Past legends like Pitt’s Mike Ditka and Penn State’s Ki-Jana Carter both have plans to be on the field Saturday.

There’s a rich history here. One team wants to recognize that and use it as fuel for motivation; the other wants to ignore that to sharpen its one-week-at-a-time focus. But this is a big game — and, deep down, Penn State’s players still understand that.

“It’s just a great rivalry,” Castro-Fields said after Wednesday’s practice.

Then, two minutes later, Castro-Fields changed his mind.

“Nah, I don’t think it’s a rivalry,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a rivalry myself, but every game’s a Super Bowl for us.”

If there’s one similarity this weekend, it’s that. Both teams will be treating this like the Super Bowl — just in different ways, and for different reasons.