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Tracing the evolution of Penn State football's rivalry with Pitt, now 100 games strong

Pitt, Freiermuth (87) high fives students

Pat Freiermuth (87) high-fives students after the game against Pitt at Heinz Field on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. No. 13 Penn State defeated Pitt 51-6.

The evolution of Penn State’s rivalry with Pitt is evident in the characterizations.

Students now might call it fun, one-sided, or even silly.

Jay Paterno, by contrast, might bring up a brawl. John Shaffer might call it “aggressive.” Todd Blackledge might call it “as good as any rivalry out there.”

This Saturday marks the 100th meeting between Penn State and Pitt, and even though bragging rights are on the line, and students will exchange expletive-driven, excrement-inspired chants, the intensity won’t match the installments that came before it.

“It’s changed,” former Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge told The Daily Collegian. “There’s no way to compare it to what it used to be. I don’t know if it could ever go back to what it used to be, which I think is unfortunate.”

While Blackledge played during the early 1980s — the glory days of this series — the first time these schools matched up took place nearly 90 years before that.

Penn State hosted the first matchup on Nov. 6 1893, winning 32-0.

Penn State dominated the first 15 matchups, going 12-3.

But once 1913 came around, the Panthers began to take control. Pitt went 20-1-2 from 1913-1938.

But ask any alumni or older fans, the rivalry picked up in the late ‘70s.

After years of dominance by Penn State in the late-60s and early-70s, Pitt started to get better and better, setting up a stretch of epic battles that became the talk of the town.

“It was the game without question every year. It was the must-win game…” Jay Paterno told The Daily Collegian. “The joke was if you went 1-10 and the one was against Pitt or Penn State you were okay. The intensity was really, really high.”

The intensity picked up when Dan Marino arrived at Pittsburgh, which led to the Panthers winning back to back games in 1979-80, the first time they had done that since 1948-49.

That game in 1980 is one that, even today, Blackledge can’t shake off.

“One of the first memories I have is a bad memory,” Blackledge said. “In the 1980 game, throwing an interception to Carlton Williamson late in the game when we were driving with a chance to potentially score a go-ahead touchdown… It basically ended the game. It was a mistake that I learned from and as painful as it was, it was something I’ve never forgotten.”

It’s safe to say Penn State got retribution the following season.

***

1981’s installment of the series has gone down as one of the biggest games in Penn State history.

The Panther’s national title hopes hung in the balance as No. 1 Pitt took on No. 11 Penn State.

With the game being played in Pittsburgh, the Panthers were the easy favorite to win.

Pitt jumped out to a 14-0 lead, and then, as they say, the rest was history.

“We had a really good football team but lost a game to Miami and another to Alabama, but we knew we were a really good team,” Blackledge said. “They jumped out on us 14-0 and we were able to come back, tie it up, and take control of the second half. That game will forever be in my memory.”

Todd Blackledge

Todd Blackledge against Pitt in 1981

The Nittany Lions won the game 48-14, ending Pitt’s title chase, and catapulting Penn State to its own title hopes the following year.

In 1982, Penn State squeaked by with a 19-10 victory, propelling the Nittany Lions to the National Championship.

That three-year stretch saw dozens of NFL-caliber — and some even Hall of Fame-caliber — talent take the field, making each game must-see TV.

“It was always a national TV game,” Paterno said. “Back then there wasn’t a lot of national TV games, so that told you how big it was.”

The intensity didn’t really falter over the next decade, with some pretty memorable moments coming from these games, including a handful of physical face-offs.

“Two of the four years we had bench-clearing brawls,” Paterno said, who played for Penn State from 1986-90. “When you’re a freshman and you see a bench-clearing brawl, then you got a pretty good idea that this is pretty important.”

Former quarterback John Shaffer, who played for Penn State from 1983-86, remembers an incident in 1986 that he still talks about to this day.

Following a touchdown by D.J. Dozier, a Pitt player pulled him back, and then all hell broke loose.

“And so the momentum of all the people that were pursuing the play, kind of ended up with a lot of pushing and shoving,” Shaffer told the Collegian. “There was metal bleachers to the left of that end zone. And we were kind of in that corner with guys kind of on top of guys. And I still remember [Steve Apke and I] kind of looked up, and we're not throwing punches, we're not moving or holding whatever, and I looked up and we started laughing like, ‘What are we doing here?’”

They may have not wanted to be apart of it, but the other players certainly did, which optimizes the animosity felt between everyone throughout the entire series.

“Even though I wasn’t a kid who grew up in Pennsylvania,” Blackledge said, “I knew how important it was to all of our players. So many of our players knew guys on the Pitt team, in some cases went to high school with them or played against them in high school. The fact that you had two major schools in the same state play every year in the last game of the year, it was just a huge rivalry game.”

Shaffer’s involvement in the rivalry began long before he began his Penn State career.

“Every Thanksgiving we would drive back for Thanksgiving with our extended family, but we would watch the Penn State game,” Shaffer said. “It was the Penn State games that were snowing or Tony Dorsett or Dan Marino and all those guys. They were very great games to watch, but the rivalry always had significance for me because I have so much in my family from Western Pennsylvania.”

That family aspect is what made this rivalry special.

Because of all of the family ties, Jay Paterno knew that his father took this game very seriously.

“When you play somebody every year and you have as many alumni in western Pennsylvania, he understood the value and importance of the game to the alumni base, to the players, to the program,” Paterno said. “He didn’t prepare for it any different, but there was definitely a sense that this game would have more emotion. When the players have more emotion, he wanted them to be absolutely sure of everything they were doing.”

Penn State won’t call it one now, but back in the day, it was the rivalry.

“It has always been a rivalry,” Shaffer said. “In the 70s and the early 80s, It was a really aggressive, competitive rivalry, where it was pretty even I think in terms of who won, who lost, and there was some really great games.”

***

With the 100th meeting coming up on Saturday, what happens next?

In short, nothing.

Penn State and Pitt don’t have any more meetings scheduled at the time of writing. Before 1992, Penn State and Pitt met almost every year. And then 2001 came and everything changed.

PITT Football

Marcus Allen (2) celebrates after he completes a safety during the game against the University of Pittsburgh at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017 Penn State defeated Pitt 33-14.

While the Nittany Lions and Panthers met on-and-off during the previous decade, 2001 started a 16-year stretch where the two teams did not play.

Many credit those years for killing the rivalry.

“The fact that they stopped playing for a long period of time really as much as anything ended what it was,” Blackledge said. “At the time I thought it was as good as any rivalry game out there and I was disappointed that it ended when it did. I know what the arguments are and what the economics of it are, what the different potential reasons to end it when it did. It was nice to see it come back for four years but it’s not the same. That’s Penn State’s loss, that’s Pitt’s loss and it’s college football’s loss.”

So why did they stop?

The simple answer is conference alignment.

For the universities’ entire histories before 1991, they were independents.

And then in that year, Pitt — who already was a part of the Big East in basketball — joined the Big East for football. In 1993 Penn State joined the Big Ten, making a matchup between the two schools more difficult. They were able to keep the series alive sparingly in the 90s, but once 2001 came around, that ended.

It wasn’t for the lack of Paterno’s effort.

“My dad for years wanted to get Pitt into the Big Ten because he wanted that season- ending game in our conference,” Paterno said. “But because the way the Big Ten TV network is set up, it didn’t give them any more TV sets because they already had the state of Pennsylvania.”

Pitt couldn’t get in the Big Ten, and a conference comprised of east coast programs sparked by Paterno couldn’t get off the ground.

So for 16 years, the memories of the rivalry sat in the minds of fans with no new ones coming.

Until 2016.

The rivalry was renewed when Penn State and Pitt began a four-game home-and-home series. There was plenty of hype surrounding the matchup, and the first one lived up to it.

Pitt squeaked by with a 42-39 win at Heinz field, and fans thought it could have been the start of something special.

Many thought they only scheduled four just to see where it went, with hopefully more on the way.

And then the next two games happened.

Penn State has dominated the last two games, with a 33-14 win at Beaver Stadium in 2017, and a 51-6 rout in Pittsburgh last year.

The luster has worn away, and now the question has arisen of whether the universities even want to play these games.

Pitt definitely does.

***

“Of course I do, but it doesn’t matter what I think,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi told reporters this week. “I think everybody in the state of Pennsylvania that’s not sitting in a football office somewhere in this state would say, ‘Hey, why don’t we play this game?' … Of course, we all want to play this game.”

It’s easy to understand why Pitt wants to play this game. It’s their Super Bowl. They’ve had competitive seasons, but are seldom in title contention. It’s a game that gives them serious bragging rights.

Football Pitt

The Nittany Lion arm wrestles Roc during the game against Pitt at Heinz Field on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. Penn State lost 42-39.

But Penn State, at this point, has national title aspirations. So they’re scheduling games which helps to boost a potential College Football Playoff resume.

The Nittany Lions will face three potentially top-25 teams in Virginia Tech, Auburn and West Virginia in the coming years.

“Penn State needs to schedule to put themselves in a position to win the Big Ten or win national championships,” Shaffer said. “So if scheduling Pitt allows them to be successful and play for a national championship every year, so be it, but I wouldn't just put Pitt on the schedule just to renew the rivalry, simply because I think they're probably some more important teams for Penn State to play.”

Still, some miss the rivalry and what could have been.

“I’’ve done all of those rivalry games where it’s two teams in the same state but different conferences, like Georgia-Georgia Tech, Clemson-South Carolina, Florida-Florida State,” said Blackledge, who now calls college games for ABC. “I’ve done all three of those games multiple times and there’s an intensity about all of those games that’s special. In an ideal world, that’s what I would love to see Pitt-Penn State be, but I don’t know if that’s ever going to be a realistic possibility.”

What makes it difficult is the scheduling differences between the Big Ten and ACC, which makes matchups like Georgia-Georgia Tech more difficult.

“One of the things that no one's really discussed is they play eight conference games. We play nine. That factors into scheduling philosophies,” Franklin said. “That has an impact on it and I don't think there's any doubt about it... if everybody was on a level playing field, if everybody was playing eight games… that would help.”

“You look at a lot of the teams that are playing these historical rivalry games, a lot of those schools and a lot of those conferences are playing eight games. The SEC is playing eight games. The ACC is playing eight games. That creates some challenges.”

For now, this is it.

Can they play again in 2030? 2035? Never again?

Regardless, fans will remember what this rivalry used to be, and not what it has become.

“It’s special to me that this is the 100th meeting between the two and I get to call it so that’s cool to me,” Blackledge said. “But I say that desire that I would have to see the rivalry be an every year thing, I partly say that as a football fan and partly as an old Penn State football player that got to experience it when it was special.”

“Guys that play in it now, there’s no way it could feel the same to them.”

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