While Pitt fully embraced the rivalry aspect of Saturday’s game, Penn State head coach James Franklin and his team seemed a little less inclined to do so.
So how did players from both sides feel after Pitt’s narrow 42-39 thriller on Saturday? Still a bit mixed, actually.
Pitt, as they were before, seems all in here.
“To say that this isn’t a rivalry game for us, that’s not true at all,” said quarterback Nathan Peterman. We were ready and we wanted this win, and I think it showed out there.”
Hopefully they think this is a rivalry now.”
Defensive back Ryan Lewis talked more about the rivalry aspect.
“It’s big. On my dad’s side of the family we have a whole bunch of Pitt alum and a whole bunch of people that just went to Pitt,” Lewis said. “I’m sure they’re loving it right now. This game is really for the city and all the fans.”
Quadree Henderson, one of the stars on offense and special teams was, well, blunt. His take? “Penn State is our rival. This is the Keystone Classic. We just went out there and beat them today.”
Now, there was quite a bit of talk about one of the reasons this wasn’t a rivalry game was that the players were practically in diapers the last time the game was played. But fullback George Aston still knew how big of a game it was, even as a kid that was very young and grew up out of the state.
“I’ve heard about it my entire life because my family is from Pittsburgh even though I’m from Virginia,” Aston said. “Leading up to the game I heard about it from my family and friends up here ever since they announced the game. I knew about the rivalry even though I don’t remember watching any of the games growing up.”
James Conner shared that sentiment and talked about the 1976 team being in town as an important factor. “It was huge,” the running back stated. “None of us [the players] are old enough to remember, or have played in this game before. We spoke to the 1976 national championship team at the hotel with us. It started with those guys and how much it meant to them. It’s our state, and it’s a battle.”
I never bought the idea that just because the players didn’t grow up in the rivalry that they couldn’t buy in. Given the proximity of the schools, the fact that they are recruiting against each other, etc., it would still seem like disliking each other would come sort of naturally on some level.
Finally, offensive Brian O’Neill talked about how Pitt viewed it vs. Penn State. “We knew what it meant coming in to us,” said O’Neill. “I don’t know what it means to them, but it means a heck of a lot to us.”
So just what did it mean to Penn State’s players? It sort of depended who you asked. Running back Saquon Barkley, for example, was starting to jump on board. Sort of, anyway.
“Pitt fans were crazy. We saw that early. They came here early and prepared. I guess you could say it’s a rivalry. We approached it the same way we do any other team.”
Wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton, who had that key drop late in the game, didn’t specifically talk about the rivalry per se, but did concede that this one was more special than others. “They all hurt,” he said. “But honestly this one has a greater magnitude to it.”
Others were more defiant, though.
Count receiver DeAndre Thompkins as those not convinced the Pitt game is any more important. “We play in big games every week. I just treat it like any other game. Pitt was on our schedule so we treat them like our next opponent. The atmosphere was great. It’s a great city and a great environment, but I just treat it like any other game.”
Asked a follow-up about if the game can one day be a rivalry, Thompkins wasn’t even convinced of that.
“I’m not too sure man. We just focus on the next team. We don’t really build up anybody or downplay anybody.”
FWIW, there were some that definitely felt it was a rivalry. Some, such as offensive lineman Andrew Nelson.
“We play Rutgers and that’s kind of an emotional game too,” Nelson said. “But us Pennsylvania guys were saying that’s going to be nothing compared to this. This is a heated rivalry.”
Despite some of the statements to the contrary, I would be surprised if Penn State players still didn’t feel like this was a bit more of a rivalry. It’s foolish to look at this game and consider Pitt in the same way you consider Kent State or even other FBS programs.
Penn State players may have come into this game questioning its importance but I would find it difficult to believe they still felt that way.