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Pitt tops Penn State ... and it was glorious

The Panthers defeated the Nittany Lions in a close game on Saturday

NCAA Football: Penn State at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State had it won.”

This was the very first comment I heard as I exited the stadium, briefly turning to admire the blue and white jersey in its splendor, to begin the long walk back to my car downtown (actually, more like uptown since I was near the Consol Center - and yes, my legs are sore).

Pitt eeked out a 42-39 win over rival Penn State on Saturday to the delight of the mostly pro-Panthers crowd. If I had to estimate at a split, I’d say something like 70-30 Pitt fans. Maybe 75-25. In our section today down in 115, I eyeballed it and it was heavily Pitt there - more like 90-10. But that was the exception and in a group where fans often renew their tickets. I saw quite a few Penn State fans in other sections. I’d be curious to hear what other people thought and hear their estimations.

So, that comment, right. Seems harmless enough. But looking a little deeper, in a nutshell, it mostly sums up the attitude of many Penn State fans.

Arrogance. Personified.

That’s the reason we hate you (and yes, I realize the feeling is mutual - that’s what makes a rivalry, by the way). Let me explain.

Pitt fans don’t hate Penn State because they’ve been a better program (they have) over the past few decades. That point isn’t debatable and while I would have loved to see some of Pitt’s better teams face Penn State in the Dave Wannstedt era with the likes of Lesean McCoy, Jonathan Baldwin, Dion Lewis, etc., it’s basically impossible to dispute that the Nittany Lions over the past 30 years have been, well, better.

But lots of programs have been better than Pitt over that time. That tends to happen when you suffer through losing teams, which Pitt often had during that stretch.

No, the reason Penn State draws the ire of Pitt fans is because of the air of superiority that is on a seemingly endless loop. It’s not good enough for Staters to have had the better program.

It’s that Pitt sucks.

It’s that the university academically sucks. It’s that they have no fans.

It’s that the few fans they do have don’t even go to the games.

It’s that they can’t keep coaches.

There’s always the senseless drivel that constantly spews despite the fact that Penn State is currently mired in a pretty good glut of mediocrity. And no, I’m not even going to reference, ‘you know what.’ I’ve asked my readers to refrain from cheap gags about that and I do as well.

News flash - you’ve got your issues, too, in the past several years.

I don’t expect this game to change that, of course. Penn State will go on, claiming they are a better program, have a better history, and that Pitt, well, still sucks. If you’re hoping that as a Pitt fan to see some level of respect from that hotheaded neighbor you have with the 409 t-shirt, good luck with that.

Now, this isn’t every Penn State fan, of course. And Pitt has their own crew of nutjobs. But, ironically, the very first thing I thought of after that comment from said Stater leaving Heinz Field today was something that happened earlier in the week. That arrogance I speak of was on full-display a few days ago in an utterly tonedeaf article from some of the fine people of the State.

Among it were these gems, carefully selected for your perusal (and yes, these are much more fun to read after the game):

But right now, any rivalry with Pitt feels one-sided. Let’s face it, despite success last year, Pitt is not a formidable football program.

There was also this, perhaps, gearing up for a loss and assuring its readers that, even if Penn State somehow miraculously loses, it means nothing in the overall hierarchy in the state. “Don’t worry, we’re still #1!”

Again, while history isn’t everything, to be at a school like Penn State (which has only had five losing seasons since WWII) and to play a team with five losing seasons since 2005, makes it feel like a win this week would be par for the course and a loss, while embarrassing, would do nothing to prove Pitt is the better program.

Mix in an attendance quip, since that, you know, obviously helps to determine winners and losers in the ritual of the playing of the footballs:

But even with a loss, it feels almost foolish to think that a team who can’t even consistently fill up its stadium in an age when football is more popular than ever is the dominant program.

And ... the closer. We need to finish strong here - what do you got?

Instead of a rivalry against a blue-blood team, we get Pitt.

And, voila! You’ve got yourself a perfect explanation of why Penn State can do better and “don’t need no stinkin’ sPitt - WE R.”

This is what we mean, people.

But I digress since it’s a bigger issue for another time. That initial comment today contextually is actually important when recapping the game so I wanted to expand on it a little more in that regard.

Penn State did nearly win after all. Penn State could have won that game. None of that is really untrue. The ball bouncing off the fingertips of the wide receiver at the end. That Penn State came within a touchdown drive from sending Pitt fans teary-eyed back to their IPAs in the parking lot. There’s no doubt that the Nittany Lions had several chances to come back and win.

For Penn State fans feeling as if they let this one get away, to ignore what the Panthers did, however, is kind of silly. Pitt, like Penn State, had a costly fumble deep in their own territory. Pitt was up 28-7 and potentially on its way to a rout early in the game. And while the Panthers were outplayed late, they did the outplaying in the first half.

Pitt, of course, had its own chances to win a bit easier in the second half but flubbed them.

  • Kicker Chris Blewitt (nah, I’m not using the blew it line again) had a chance to make it a three-score game late in the third quarter, but badly missed a long field goal and Penn State scored a touchdown on the short field.
  • On their next drive, with the chance to burn some clock, James Conner fumbled giving the Nittany Lions an even shorter field to play with. The damage wasn’t as a bad (a field goal), but still cost the team three crucial points.
  • On the final drive, Penn State had to convert a borderline-ridiculous 4th and 16 just to sustain it.
  • Earlier that half, they converted a tipped pass for a first-down reception on third and long, which eventually led to a touchdown.

Pitt didn’t try to Pitt things away, but, they didn’t do themselves any favors, either.

In summary, Penn State could have won it. But to ignore how they got there and the plays/breaks they needed to get close is short-sighted.

Now, what I want to say is this - and it’s important. The hearts in the kids from Penn State were unreal. To get down that big on the road could have easily meant they’d fold and go away. That didn’t happen and because of it, we had a heck of a game. That the Nittany Lions don’t have any heart isn’t something you’ll hear me say. They had plenty of it and while we joke about Pitt blowing ridiculous leads, I don’t know how many unranked teams come back against them on the road today. Kudos and all that to you blue and white people. As I acknowledge, they had some breaks. But Pitt, by the same measure, got some breaks early on and throughout as well.

With that out of the way, I wanted to throw a few more of thoughts from the game out there.

First, the atmosphere was insane. And yes, Pitt fans, you have Penn State to thank in part for that. The Panthers fans and students did their job. They were loud, relentless, etc. But none of that happens without the opponent and even more reserved fans had to be spurred on a bit more by that. It did in fact set the City’s all-time attendance record for a sporting event, so as the younger peeps say, it was lit.

One thing a lot of folks had gripes with against Villanova was the offensive playcalling. It was predictable, stale, and as a result, the Panthers mostly got by purely on their talent on that side of the ball as well a strong defense. But as we saw today, the Panthers aren’t afraid to get creative. A lot of people (myself included) figured we’d see more on offense today and that’s what we got.

Jordan Whitehead, as I expected, played on offense after some gamesmanship by Pat Narduzzi. Pitt mixed and matched running backs. There were shovel passes. Quadree Henderson played a huge game in the Tyler Boyd role of catching/running. There were all kinds of heroes today but what coordinator Matt Canada did in producing 42 points was incredible.

Nathan Peterman was outdone by his Penn State counterpart, quarterback Trace McSorley. I wasn’t sure about him going into the game, but McSorley, I thought, was an absolute star. He finished with 332 yards and a touchdown and, short of the game-ending pick, did just about everything right. His offensive line failed him at times due to Pitt’s pass rush but that kid can play. Really not looking forward to having to play him again. Peterman, however, was plenty capable. But never trailing in the entire game, he simply didn’t need to do as much. Pitt relied on the running game, as noted in the box score as the Panthers carried the ball 56 times to Penn State’s 31. Conner had the costly fumble, but also rumbled his way to 117 yards to lead all backs in that department.

McSorley was also harassed a good bit by the Pitt defensive line. He had a huge day but the Panthers’ front seven really came up with some big plays when needed. They forced him into a fumble and sacked him on numerous occasions. I don’t have the sack numbers in front of me, but it seemed he was taken down a good bit.

Henderson also did too much to go unnoticed. He nearly broke yet another kickoff return for his touchdown late in the game - it would have been his third consecutive game with one had he not been tripped up at the Penn State 10-yard line. I’m excited about the difference-maker he can be as a return man. He had the long return, led Pitt in receiving with three catches for 47 yards and a touchdown, and was second behind only Conner in rushing with four rushes for 58 yards. He hasn’t replaced Tyler Boyd as a do-everything kind of guy but is a better return man and working his butt off on offense.

And, oh yeah, he’s only a true sophomore.

Finally, while the defense had some issues, to not revisit the whole Ryan Lewis thing would be unfair to him. Lewis, you might remember, was the lame duck-to-be at cornerback. Many people believed true freshman Damar Hamlin could beat him out in training camp until it was learned that Hamlin was dealing with some sort of an injury (all of that despite the fact that Lewis experienced as a senior). Fans reluctantly accepted him there but desperately wanted Hamlin to be ready as well.

That didn’t happen, but were it not for Lewis today, folks, Pitt perhaps loses the game. He intercepted McSorley’s final pass and ultimately won the game for the Panthers. That Lewis interception is a play you’ll see in highlight films for the rivalry, end of season, etc., so I’d get used to seeing it. Big props to that kid - he deserves that after everyone basically threw him under the bus once Hamlin signed.

I nearly didn’t go. Tickets were high and I buy on a game-to-game basis simply out of convenience and because I don’t go to every game. It wasn’t until Friday when I realized I’d be kicking myself if they won and I wasn’t there. So, obviously, I’m glad I made the trek.

If you were there as a Pitt fan, I expect you did as well.

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