Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh haven’t squared off on the gridiron since 2000. Now, 16 years later, as the two football teams are gearing up to face each other, the rivalry is more intriguing than ever before.
Pitt and Penn State are natural rivals — Pennsylvania’s version of Alabama vs. Auburn — yet hardly any of the action has taken place on the field. Saturday, that changes as the Nittany Lions head to Heinz Field for the Keystone Classic to take on a Panthers team led by head coach Pat Narduzzi.
Narduzzi is in his second season at the helm of the Pittsburgh program. In his first year, his Panthers went 8-5, but they limped into the off-season, losing two in a row.
On the opposing sideline will be head coach James Franklin, who is in his third year with the Nittany Lions and is still in search of his first signature victory. He’s also working on restoring the roar that used to be in Happy Valley when Penn State took the field.
Each program has had its ups and downs lately, with Pitt unable to hold onto a head coach for more than a couple seasons and the Nittany Lions still reeling from the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Both teams have been on a coaching carousel — Pitt since firing Dave Wannstedt in 2010 with four coaches following him in the six years since, and Penn State since firing Joe Paterno in 2011 in the wake of the Sandusky scandal with four head coaches following him.
Overall, since 2010, the Nittany Lions have the edge in the wins column with 46, while the Panthers have 42.
But while records are cool and data is fun, they don’t mean anything in rivalry games.
How either team got to Saturday won’t matter once the first whistle blows and the opening kickoff is booted. What does matter, however, is how much this game means to these programs and their fans.
Narduzzi, who is arguably coaching in the biggest game of his Pitt career thus far, has implemented a media blackout for his players and coaching staff leading up to Saturday’s game in the hopes that his players and staff are solely focused on the task of beating Penn State.
“As far as this week goes, our guys will be locked in,” Narduzzi said. “We’re going to change the policy a little bit — no disrespect to you guys at all. I’d like to be the only voice this week. I’d like to eliminate all distractions, so we’re going to close off practice this week to the media. We aren’t going to have our players talk. We’ll have as many guys available after the game as you need Saturday, but this week we’re going to stay locked in and have no distractions.”
Franklin, also in the most meaningful game of his Penn State career, has kept it business as usual, allowing his players to speak to the media and highlighting many of his Pittsburgh-native players in interviews and conference calls.
“For us, focus on the process of being successful, not the results or not a specific type of game,” Franklin said. “And our guys are excited about it. But I think everybody understands the significance of it. We’ve been hearing about it all off-season. There is no doubt about it. But our approach is consistent week in and week out.”
Whichever coach wins, it’ll be their first signature win with their program. Whatever program wins, it will give its fans instant bragging rights for the next 12 months — until the teams meet again next year.
While the rivalry probably won’t return to the levels it was in the 1980s or 90s, it shouldn’t disappoint on the field. Fans of both programs have been waiting 16 long years for this game. The fans have weathered coaching changes, scandals, losing seasons, winning seasons and everything else in between to get to this game, the Keystone Classic.
Pitt – Penn State game dubbed The Keystone Classic https://t.co/mcqUUPuvYH
— SB Nation College (@sbncollege) August 26, 2016
Records and the past won’t matter come Saturday. Between the lines, these two teams will fight for not only a win on the field but for wins in the realm of recruiting and bragging rights for their passionate fan bases.
The Keystone Classic is back — and it will be well worth the price of admission come Saturday.
Image credit: USATSI