Definition of rival
The main attraction our trip to Pittsburgh was clearly the 99th rematch of the Penn State vs Pitt “rivalry”. There’s much debate over the term rivalry when it comes to Penn State vs Pitt – at least on the football field. Some argue that they are absolutely rivals – competing for in-state players and of course victories. Others say they are no longer rivals – that Penn State has been on a different trajectory ever since breaking away from their Independent status in the mid-90s.
Leading up to the game, Pitt’s head coach Pat Narduzzi, pushed the rivalry narrative hard, saying flatly that “it’s an in-state rivalry game” and that “anybody who wants to argue and say this is no different than any other week, it is”. Penn State’s James Franklin, on the other hand, said it’s the most important game of the season – because it’s this week’s game. Obviously downplaying the rivalry talk much to the chagrin of Narduzzi.
I’m torn on whether to call it a rivalry today. In my mind, a rivalry means that it is truly competitive. Either team can win on any given day. And that’s the way it was from the mid-70s to the late 80s. During the span between 1976-1988, the teams went 6-6-1 – with neither team winning more than back-to-back years. That’s when it was a true rivalry. Every year, late in the season, nearly everyone in PA tuned to watch this clash. And during that time, the winner of this game usually had a say in the national title, with Pitt claiming the title in 1976 and Penn State in 1982 and 1986. After that, Penn State went on a 7-1 run in the series before it was canceled again in 2000.
Pitt took the first game in the renewed series in 2016, beating the young Lions 42-39 despite Saquon Barkley’s five touchdowns. The win was secured by a game-ending interception in the end zone thrown by Trace McSorely. Little did we know at that point that Penn State would go on to win the B1G Title and compete in one of the most incredible Rose Bowls ever. The next year, the Lions evened the series with Pitt and finished with yet another New Year’s Day Bowl game, this time a win over Washington in the Fiesta Bowl. Both years, the Lions were sniffing the edges of the 4-team playoff with 11-3 and 11-2 seasons in 2016 and 2017 respectively. Pitt, on the other hand, finished at 8-5 and 5-7.
Regardless of whether you call it a rivalry or not, there’s enough history there for it to be a dogfight. And while we always like to catch a game in Happy Valley, seeing the Lions outside of their home does have its benefits. For starters, it’s usually much easier to get to any away city rather than State College. Add to that the opportunity to explore new stadiums, sites, sounds and smells and I’m in!
We flew into Pittsburgh on Friday and caught the Pirates playing the Marlins on Friday night. If you’ve never visited PNC Park, put it on your list.
As luck would have it, we booked the same hotel as the team. Who knew!? It was pretty special seeing all of the blue and white throughout the hotel for the weekend and occasionally catching the players and coaches in the elevators. And with Pittsburgh’s light rail, “T”, across the street, it made it easy to get to the stadium and back on game day.
The weather forecast for Saturday was nothing but rain – the remnants of Tropical Storm Gordon. On top of that, Pitt communicated a strict “no tailgating” rule between 1:30-5:00 due to the parking issues caused by the Pirates vs Marlins Saturday afternoon game. The combination would put a serious damper on pregame activities.
Of course, Saturday morning, we had to hit local favorite, Pamela’s for breakfast. The line was out the door, in the rain and a 40-minute wait, but so worth it again. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to handle their Trash Hash.
We walked back to the hotel through the Strip district even with the rain. Still, the colors of the farm stands popped and the smells of the street vendors and specialties stores weren’t dampened by the rain. Next time, I need to try their Pepperoni Bread.
You can see from our hotel, these tailgaters were undeterred by the elements…
The parking lot is normally reserved for events at PPG Arena, where the NHL Penguins play – and the land used to be the site of the old Civic Arena, aka The Igloo. I recall being in the Igloo when the Pens were on pace to break the NHL record for wins in a row. The night I was there was their 15th straight win, tying the record. They would go on to win two more games for 17 in a row – a record that still stands today. Here’s the new PPG Arena across the street.
We met up with a former colleague (and current friend) for some pregaming at Pizza Milano, not far from the hotel and arena. It was great to catch up with Brian over some of Pittsburgh’s best pizza and of course, Yuengling!
Before long, it was time to head to the stadium. Like PNC next door, Heinz Field offers some spectacular view of the city and three rivers area. Entering the stadium wasn’t as nice. We exited the T and followed the crowd to the nearest entrance, which turned out to be the student section. A consistent chorus of “F*** Penn State” chants serenaded us as we made our way to our upper-level seats. If there was ever a time for lower levels, this was it.
Once up to our level, I was shocked to see beer sales. Leading up to the event, most people felt that the “no tailgating” policy was a way to curb the, shall we say, enthusiasm, for the game. I guess they wanted everyone to tailgate inside the stadium at $8 a pop.
Our seats were on the rail of the lower-level upper deck section, offering a birds-eye view of the stadium. Even as kickoff neared, the stadium was still pretty empty. Granted, we waited quite a while underneath the stands to stay out of the elements as long as possible.
Although Penn State called for a Whiteout, the rain has a way of messing it up. Many people, us included, went with our blue ponchos. And I also saw some Pitt fans wearing white ponchos. Even still, it looked like a fairly dominate Penn State crowd, maybe 60/40 Penn State.
The student section started off empty but would fill up. I will say, they were pretty loud …at least for the 1st half…
Things got off to a rocky start for Pitt with the opening coin toss. Some confusion had the Panther’s captain say they wanted to receive the ball to open the game. In these sloppy conditions, it’s pretty obvious that you want to start on defense. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time Pitt messed up a coin toss with Penn State. This little gem is comical.
Things would only go downhill from there for the “home” team.
The game was tight with Penn State opening the scoring with a nifty jet sweep to new standout, KJ Hamler. Pitt bounced back with a score but missed the extra point in what would be the first of many special teams disasters for them.
One thing Pitt and Penn State have in common is the singing of Sweet Caroline. I like how they integrated their cheer into the song.
After the half, Penn State took advantage of numerous gaffes by Pitt and the opened the floodgates. By the end of the 3rd quarter, the Lions were up 30-6 and the Pitt no-so faithful cleared out. At one point, their student section started to fill up with Penn State students before security started to remove the overzealous visitors.
Controversy came late in the game when Penn State continued to play aggressively. Freshman QB Sean Clifford entered the game after a Pitt turnover and on his first play, quickly threw a perfect 34-yard TD pass with 4:21 to play, finishing off the scoring at 51-6.
But it didn’t stop there. After Penn State got the ball back after stopping Pitt on downs with 1:09 to play, true freshman RB Ricky Slade fumbled. Franklin challenged the call on the field. Looking at it on TV, I think he was down. Regardless, I think Franklin was sending a message to everyone. Narduzzi – you asked for it. Slade – I believe in you. And throwing another punch to the head official, John O’Neill, for some bad calls.
O’Neill has been a notoriously bad referee to Penn State. His crew screwed up on several blatantly obvious calls again on this night. Seeing them from the stands was one thing, but when I watched I replay, I couldn’t believe it. Here’s a photo of Amari Oruwariye miraculously making an interception, but there’s no call for offensive PI or more blatantly, facemask. How he caught this ball is beyond me!
On the same play, Ellison Jordan, Penn State’s defensive lineman’s helmet is ripped off his head by the Pitt O-lineman. O’Neill announced that Ellison would have to leave the game because his helmet came off. And how do you think that happened? No flag. And there were more questionable calls, but those could be debated.
As the game wound down, we made our way down to catch up with our daughter before she boarded the bus for the long, but happy ride back to State College. We just happened to catch a shot with the Lion.
We heard horror stories about the fans from two years ago, but overall they were fine. A few students would be relentless, but that’s about it. We even had one of the students trying to rein in his friend as he was pretty vocal on the train ride back to the city.
Back at the hotel, we stayed up late to watch the Sun Devils upset Michigan State out in the desert. Then it was lights out as we were heading to Cleveland in the morning.
Rivalry? Maybe. I would like to see us play Pitt every year, but my guess is that the financials just don’t support it. There’s no doubt that Pitt would want a home/home series. The impact on season ticket sales alone would be reason enough for them. Plenty of Penn State fans purchased Pitt Season tickets only to use this one game – avoiding the secondary market. Pitt was charging $140 for a Penn State student ticket. That’s outrageous considering any other game on their schedule is about $32 for opposing students. Oh, and the “get in” price for the rest of the Pitt home schedule? About $6 per game with prime lower levels at the 50 going for about $14 for this weekend against Georgia Tech.
Pitt has their challenges. With a football stadium that’s off campus, it’s not easy to get students to games. They’ve been struggling with attendance for years and there’s a constant debate about building an on-campus stadium that’s “right-sized” for them as opposed to playing in 65k seat Heinz Field and having it look empty every game. This deters recruits as they see all those empty yellow seats.
Next year will mark the 100th contest between the two. I’m not sure I’ll make it for that one, but it will be sad to see this rivalry come to an end. There. I said it. Rivalry.
Stop wondering. Start wandering!