Penn State and Pitt ready to renew after 15-year hiatus
PITTSBURGH (AP) The history of the 123-year-old rivalry between Pittsburgh and Penn State is undeniable. Trying to convey decades of antagonism to players who were in preschool the last time the Nittany Lions and Panthers shared a football field is another matter.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi made it a point in the run-up to Saturday's renewal after a 15-year hiatus to give his kids a crash course, one that happened to coincide with a rare media blackout that Narduzzi described as necessary to make sure the Panthers didn't get caught up in any distractions before arguably the program's most notable nonconference game since Sept. 16, 2000, when Pitt handed Penn State and coach Joe Paterno a 12-0 loss.
''I know when I first got into a major rivalry, I didn't get it the first year,'' Narduzzi said. ''I got it the second year. I want to make sure they don't do the same. It's my job to make sure they embrace it and understand what it's all about.''
Penn State coach James Franklin took a slightly different tack. While it may take some convincing for some of the Nittany Lions to get just how big a deal this is within the state, there are sizable number of players on both sides who call Pennsylvania home - some of whom were wooed by both schools - that won't need a reminder.
''So we just want to make sure we have our composure and we have our poise and we go out and play as hard as we can and execute,'' Franklin said. ''I want them to play with passion, with emotion, but right up to the edge without having any issues.''
While it's unclear just how heated things will get on the turf at Heinz Field, city officials and the top administrators at each school took precautions to make sure the action stays between the lines.
University of Pittsburgh police planned to scour residential neighborhoods around the campus in search of upholstered furniture left outside - the kind that can sometimes turn into kindling in celebration (or defeat) - and have anything that could serve as fuel for a pretty good bonfire removed. Pitt chancellor Patrick Gallagher and Penn State president Eric Barron issued a joint statement encouraging what could be a record crowd at Heinz Field to ''make wise choices.''
Both teams come in 1-0 after less than spectacular debuts against lesser opponents, perhaps because they were looking ahead. That won't be an issue this time around. The winner gets in-state bragging rights for a least 52 weeks and a very sizable chip to play in the living rooms of in-state recruits.
Some things to look for as one of college football's longest-standing showdowns begins an intriguing renewal:
UP TO SPEED
The Nittany Lions are looking to push the pace behind mobile sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley. That didn't exactly happen last Saturday against Kent State. Penn State managed just 354 yards of total offense and ran just 54 plays, numbers that Franklin expects to go up as the season progresses.
''I think whenever you can speed up the tempo, that's a good thing,'' Franklin said. ''We want to be able to do both of those things. We want to be able to check with me on the sideline to get in the right play and we want to have plays where we can get up and just snap the ball that are plays that have an opportunity to be successful versus multiple defensive fronts and multiple coverages.''
JAMES BEING JAMES
Pitt junior running back James Conner's return from a bout with cancer included a pair of touchdowns against Villanova but also a pedestrian 3.1 yards per carry, something Narduzzi attributed to the 2014 ACC Player of the Year too often searching for a big play when getting a handful of yards at a time will do. Expect that to change as Conner brushes the rust off.
If things are close late, the Nittany Lions have an advantage in the kicking game. Tyler Davis is 24 for 24 on field goals in his career while Pitt's Chris Blewitt missed a pair of kicks in a 28-7 victory over Villanova last week. Davis understands the usually tricky conditions at Heinz Field - where the wind can swirl unpredictably - but pointed to his time kicking over the summer in his hometown of Chicago as pretty good practice for what awaits on Saturday.
Freelance writer Travis Johnson in State College, Pennsylvania, contributed to this report.
AP college football site: www.collegefootball.ap.org