Heinz Field Clash with Pitt First in 16 Years
Penn State renews an old, bitter rivalry on Saturday, as our Nittany Lions (1-0), travel to Pittsburgh to play the Pitt Panthers (1-0) on their adopted home turf at Heinz Field. Kickoff time is noon. Oy vey.
The last time the two teams played each other was back in 2000, when Pitt was playing at the late, non-lamented Three Rivers Stadium where they shut out the Lions 12-0. The first game they played was in 1893 and they’ve done this dance 95 more times since that year.
Last year, Pitt finished the regular season 8-4, and then went and lost to Navy in the Military Bowl. Penn State, to refresh your memory, wound up 7-5 with a loss to Georgia in the post-season.
Pittsburgh is coming off a 28-7 victory over FCS Villanova, who they were expected to handle easily but with whom they struggled a bit. Same deal with PSU. Let’s say that both teams were shaking off the summer rust.
The big deal for Pitt in the Villanova game was the comeback of running back James Conner, who was out for a year dealing with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which was diagnosed around Thanksgiving last year. A long course of chemotherapy depleted his immune system. He scored two touchdowns in the ‘Nova game to the cheers of fans on both sides. Conner had been ACC Player of the Year in 2014.
Hey, look. Unless you’re getting up there in years, you can’t know how bitter and intense the hatred was between these two schools back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The title of this article was a slogan that was frequently found on placards and lapel buttons around Beaver Stadium: Shitt on Pitt. We also had a special derisive cheer just for the Panthers. It went like this:
Somebody yells: UNDER THE ARM!
Chorus responds: PITT!!!!!!
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Many years of hotly contested games gave us all something to get torqued up about. Pitt was always the final game of the regular season.
That meant that Pennsylvania’s late fall, better known as winter, would be in full swing. I recall going to the 1964 game, sitting in the north stands with the other freshmen in 20-degree weather with a 15-mph wind blowing through Beaver Stadium from the open end (where the South Stands are now). Fortunately, State won that game 28-0, because I paid the price — when I got back to the dorm they had to put me on a radiator to thaw me out.
That 1964 team was well worth watching. After starting the year 1-4, Rip Engle’s boys came back to clobber WVU, edge Maryland, and then completely discombobulate #2 Ohio State in Columbus, 27-0. After another road win over Houston, all of frigid Happy Valley was ready to see the guys destroy Pitt — and they did!
There were, however, several reported cases of frostbite, and by the end of the game, the stands were mostly empty. Sitting on metal benches with a wind-chill of -39°F just isn’t very comfortable.
You know the rest. Penn State joined the Big Ten, Pitt joined the Big Least, and later moved to the ACC while the BL was falling apart. St. Joseph Paterno didn’t want to play no steenking Peet no more. That pissed lots of us off, as did the unavenged loss in 2000.
Lots of Hatred to Go Around
Back in the day, we reviled both the Panthers’ star players and the coaches of the Mid-1960s through the 1980s. Some names to get your juices flowing: Hugh Green (hatred), Tony Dorsett (intense hatred), Dan Marino (unbridled super intense hatred), and Jackie Sherrill (completely off the hatred scale hatred). You Gen Xers and Millenials just have no idea of the depth of hatred we experienced and enjoyed. Pitt players and coaches of the time were regarded as the scum of the earth, and in Sherrill’s case, he actually was. (Perhaps you remember the episode in which he was coaching at Mississippi State where he had a young bull castrated in front of his players to show them what they had to do to the Texas Longhorns. That was back in 1992, and they did, in fact, beat Texas 28-10. Sherrill said the procedure was “educational and motivational.”)
The players of today were barely out of diapers when this game was last played. So, the only thing capable of imparting a sense of the history of which I’ve only scratched the surface here is their coaches. It seems as if Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi is trying to instill in his players the significance of the rivalry; however, James Franklin is minimizing that aspect of the game, wanting to keep it low-key to avoid “an emotional buildup” before the game, whatever that means.
But I digress.
What We’re Looking at Dis Year, Already
Pitt is a running team but the Wildcats found some success in shutting down the rushing game to force the Panthers to pass. That strategy might work for Penn State, which has a better secondary than defensive line, now being absent run stoppers like Austin Johnson.
The aforementioned James Conner had only 53 yards rushing on 17 carries in that game, and the totality of the Pitt running game was 86 yards, as opposed to 175 yards passing, of which Conner had 16. Not a great offensive effort by the Panthers, which is some cause for hope for Penn State.
We’ll have to see whether the Pitt defense is up to the task of smoking out the PSU running plays and stacking the box to dare Trace McSorley to pass. James Franklin says we’re going to run the ball, and furthermore, McSorley will call his own number for a good share of the carries. How we’re going to do that without an offensive line is completely beyond me.
The aggressive Penn State offense will try to score 30 points per game in order to make up for a defense that will yield more points than recent instances. But McSorley is going to have to hone his downfield passing skills for this to even have a chance of happening. Otherwise, opponents will see a pretty one-dimensional offense to shut down. Force it to pass and you’ll get second down gambling downfield throws that fall short of the mark and leave third and long. The jury is still out regarding whether the Nittany Lions can improve upon recent seasons’ third down conversion percentages.
Yeah, Saquon Barkley is exciting, but I hope we can unleash some additional dimensions, and I hope the offensive line is not too damn offensive as the season wears on! And that added dimension seems to be McSorley’s running, but that’s a dangerous thing with a fearless guy like Trace. He seems to want to give up his body and invite hard hits. Trace gotta remember that he’s the quarterback, and if he’s knocked out, the entire offense will suffer.
Special Teams Stuff
Pitt has a 5-8 sophomore speedster wide receiver return guy named Quadree Henderson who is nothing short of special. In the Villanova game, he combined four receptions for 35 yards with two kickoff returns and four punt returns. Of the kickoff returns, one went 96 yards to da house. His average punt return was 14.5 yards with a long of 31. Watch this guy!
So, I dunno. We’ve still got lots of question marks that will make this an interesting showcase for many aspects of the Nittany Lions’ game. I hope it doesn’t turn out to the sloppy bore that was the Kent State game. I further hope that it reveals some concrete progress.
I won’t do a Distinguished Alumnus thingie this short week due to enough space already having been expended for my other bullshit. Furthermore, I would hate to have to disparage Mister Rogers or Gene Kelly just because they went to Pitt!
Looks like it will be a hot one in da Burgh, with a projected high of 88°F. In this case, the noon start might be a bit of a blessing, as it were. Look for the big boys to get a little fatigued in the second half. It would behoove both coaches to pay attention to rotating linemen.
The Bottom Line
What’s this? I haven’t told you much of anything but I’m wanting to issue a prediction? Yeah, like everyone else forecasting sports, I pull them straight out of my ass (better known as “my informed viewpoint”). And so it will go, but you know I’m right, especially when I waffle. Hell, I’ve been distracted by doing the laundry and reading message wars associated with a club in which I’m an officer, so this will be the best my scrambled brain has to offer.
Interestingly enough, the Penn State vs. Pitt game opened with the Panthers 4½ point favorites. The spread quickly widened to 6 points, with the over/under now at 48. This would ordinarily portend a Pitt victory on the order of 27-21. But Pitt scored only 28 on FCS Villanova while PSU was putting 30 on mighty MAC Kent State. Who said this would be easy?
I’m thinking that the fact that I have to do the annual Heart Walk in the morning before the noon kickoff will make them tired. What is it about noon starts? They dogged it in the first half last week and it wasn’t even a noon start. This one is. So they dog it until midway in the third quarter. That constraint notwithstanding, I’m going with Pitt 34, PSU 26. Pitt covers, and take the over.
Prediction aside, though, the Nittany Lions damn well better win!
I’ll be back after the game with my post-mortem analysis, which no self-respecting sports fan would ever miss.