Rivalry Or No, Stakes High For No. 13 Penn State And Pitt
It took Pat Narduzzi three years to finally embrace the obvious. No more hiding behind coachspeak. No more clichés about treating all 12 of Pittsburgh's opponents the same.
It just doesn't work that way when it comes to the Panthers and No. 13 Penn State.
"Anybody wants to argue and say this is no different than any other week, OK, it is. That's a fact," the Pitt coach said. "If you want to ignore that, you can ignore it. It's a big game."
The meeting at Heinz Field on Saturday will be the 99th in a series that dates back to 1893. It's also the last in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future between the Panthers (1-0) and the Nittany Lions (1-0). There are no plans for the teams to play past next year's centennial showdown at Beaver Stadium, a byproduct of the tricky scheduling of big-time college football.
Neither Narduzzi nor Penn State coach James Franklin want to get involved in the big-picture implications. They're too busy getting ready for this game. Pitt enjoyed a relatively boring opening weekend in throttling overmatched Albany while the Nittany Lions were pushed to overtime at home by Appalachian State.
The prime-time national television stage offers the Panthers a chance to prove they're back after a disappointing 2017 season. It allows Penn State an opportunity to show its uneven performance in the opener was an aberration.
"We've got to make big improvements between week one and week two," Franklin said. "A lot of people feel that's when you make the biggest improvements, so we're going to need it."
They won't lack for motivation. When Penn State visited Pittsburgh in 2016, the Nittany Lions walked away on the wrong end of a 42-39 loss, a setback that ultimately cost them a spot in the College Football Playoff. Falling to the Panthers again could have more far-reaching implications.
"We know we're going into a hornet's nest," Penn State running back Miles Sanders said.
It's a rivalry living on borrowed time.
"You either walk the streets or you're going to walk the alleys after the game," Narduzzi said. "You're going to sneak out of Heinz Field, walk where you don't have to see anybody, or walk out with your chest up and chin up, walk right down the middle of everybody, say, 'Here we are. Let's go.'"
Some other things to know ahead of the game:
TRACE IS ON THE CASE
Narduzzi called Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley a Heisman Trophy candidate. And while the senior didn't exactly play like one for stretches against Appalachian State, he did when it mattered, throwing for the game-tying touchdown in the closing seconds of regulation. McSorley has thrown for four touchdowns in two games against Pitt and will be facing a secondary that could be missing three regulars.
"He's a football player, that's his greatest strength," Narduzzi said. "He plays the game with passion. What else can you say? He's got it all. He'll play in the NFL. He's a leader, too. I'm sure those guys are following him around campus right now. He's got it all. Tough guy to stop."
JUST LIKE AKRON?
Franklin raised eyebrows last September when without prompting he likened a workmanlike 33-14 victory over Pitt at Beaver Stadium to topping Akron, whom the Nittany Lions faced in the 2017 opener. Some took it as a swipe at the Panthers. Franklin called it a misinterpretation of his mantra that every week is the Super Bowl.
It's a philosophy that extends to social media. Franklin makes it a point to send out a tweet at the beginning of each week repeating the name of the next opponent. He did it again on Sunday , but jokingly expressed frustration when he couldn't quite reach Twitter's 280-character limit.
"I think I came up three or four characters short, which usually really bothers me, because I want to maximize every experience," he added. "I probably should have just put exclamation points in."
MILES TO GO
Sanders picked up right where predecessor Saquon Barkley left off. The junior, a Pittsburgh native, picked up career highs in yards rushing (91), attempts (19) and rushing touchdowns (two) against Appalachian State. He also earned a shot on the cover of Sports Illustrated and — more importantly — praise from his mentor.
"He critiqued me, what he saw and what he thinks I can do better," Sanders said. "He liked the way I handled myself. With all the chatter about me filling big shoes and stuff, he just told me, like everybody else told me, just be me."
The Panthers will host a rare Saturday night game for the first time since 2013. That can make for a long day in the hotel. It may be the one time Narduzzi endorses (sort of) his players fooling around on their phones to pass the time.
"I don't know if there's anything you can do about that besides try to keep your mind off it," he said. "I'm sure they'll be on their phones, tweeting, snapping, playing Fortnite all that other baloney, shooting people on video games. I don't get it."