Penn State and Pitt just finished their 100th meeting of the Keystone Classic in Happy Valley with the Nittany Lions prevailing 17-10. This was a great game if you had no rooted interests in either team and an even better game if you despise one or both of these schools. The action was filled with tension, big plays, defensive stands, bad coaching, worse officiating, and even a weather delay. Ultimately though, Penn State took a 53-43-4 lead on the series as a whole.
On the surface it looks like the 100 games played between the two teams have been mighty close with Penn State expectedly edging out the Panthers. However, this really doesn’t tell the story. Between 1910 and 1940 Pitt won 22 of the 27 match-ups; Penn State only won three of those and the teams tied in the other two games. Not to take credit away from Pitt (but while also taking credit away from Pitt), Penn State has mostly dominated the series ever since they became an actual football powerhouse. If you look at the record from 1940 PSU leads 39-19-2 and if you look from 1960 and on (the start of the JoePa era and PSU dominance) the record between the two is 30-10-1.
Pitt football history mostly lives in the past – and that really is not meant as a dig at the team. Most of their claimed national titles are not recognized by the NCAA and came before the 40s. On top of that they haven’t played in a top tier New Year’s bowl since the early 80s. Penn State has had the opposite happen where most of their big-time football success came after the 1940s and has sustained decades into today’s game.
The heat of this PSU v Pitt rivalry where the two teams really went back and forth was between 1940 and 1960. I think that is why it is hard for Penn State fans to really get up for this game and understand the cultural significance of it. Pitt on the other hand lives for this series. They have a tremendously hard time gathering fans to attend their home games because the expectations every year are so low and the on-field product just typically isn’t the best. When they play Penn State, they have the opportunity to play spoiler to their in-state “rivals” and to a school where the players and students probably know a lot of people who go there. I know it is cliché, but it is ‘their Superbowl’ … it just simply means more to them than it does to State.
The big debate now that the recent four game stretch has concluded is should the series continue? I will state my case at the end of this but I think it is important to give both perspectives:
Penn State: The Nittany Lions are perennially competing for a Big Ten title, and while they may not always have the sustained success like Ohio State, the expectations for each season are just as high. Every year Penn State will play 9 teams in the Big Ten and 3 outside of it. The three outside teams usually consist of two very beatable teams to help get the ball rolling and allow the team to mesh before heading into conference play and one against a mid-level ‘Power 5’ opponent to help increase strength of schedule. For the last 4 years, Pitt was that stronger opponent and did end up winning the 2016 matchup against PSU. The issue with Pitt is that while they recruit, play, and end up with a record that is indicative of a mid-level team, they play against Penn State extremely hard. This is due to a lot of factors that I’ll talk about in the Pitt section. While winning 75% of the matchups against a decent team is good, it’s not really what you want. There are only 12 games to impress the Playoff Selection Committee and dropping one of four to a mid-tier team can really screw up a potentially elite season (see 2016 PSU football). “Pitt always plays hard against Penn State” doesn’t mean much when PSU has 2 losses and the team ahead of them has one. That is why playing a team like VA Tech or WVU (matchups in the next few years) makes more sense for Penn State – there is a ramp up in talent without the added aggression that Pitt brings.
Pitt: The Panthers just are not what they used to be. Anyone who remembered their dominance in Football is likely not alive or not coherent enough to talk about it, so it’s safe to say that they’re no longer a football powerhouse. On top of that, if social media tells us anything, they are having a pretty tough time filling their seats for most games that are not against top tier opponents. Pat Narduzzi, their head coach, does a good job riling up the students for more important games but doesn’t do enough to garner interest for a full season. That can be due to their lack of success, the fact that they don’t recruit well, not having their own football stadium, and so on and so forth. Games like the ones against PSU are the few that their fans will wake up for. Pitt fans have a lot of resentment toward Penn State whether it be because they have friends/family who go there, relatives or alumni who resent PSU for earlier games in the rivalry, or because Pitt itself does what it can to hype up the games. When Narduzzi says things like “playing in Beaver Stadium is just like playing anywhere else” he is simply trying to build the hype around the game for competitive advantage and to get Pitt fans actually interested in the games. The Penn State game is an instant catalyst for Pitt football and an upset win can do wonders for their confidence, attendance, and recruiting in state.
I obviously fall on the Penn State side of the argument. To me, while beating Pitt is fun, there isn’t much reason to risk a potentially damning loss just to play a “rival” in the same state. I haven’t given Pitt much credit here but they’re a good team – at least good enough to beat PSU 25% of the time. A loss for Penn State is simply devastating and causes a tirade of ridicule from football media all year long. A win for Penn State is expected and does absolutely nothing in terms of standings and optics. Beating Pitt is basically just like beating Akron.
I really love the slogan “Unrivaled”. Penn State fans should never live vicariously through another team losing. We should play the games ahead of us and have one goal in mind, a championship. Don’t be the fan that gets just as excited your “rival” lost as you would a win. Don’t do what a Pitt fan would do. Be a proud Penn Stater whose team is currently 3-0.