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Pitt’s three best games at Three Rivers Stadium

The historic Pittsburgh stadium was demolished 20 years ago, and it was the site of several memorable Pitt games

Three Rivers Stadium Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Twenty years ago, the city of Pittsburgh said goodbye to a historic and beloved landmark, as Three Rivers Stadium was demolished on Feb. 11, 2001, after 30 years of use, to make way for Heinz Field, PNC Park and the buildings and lots that make up the modern North Shore.

The period was a somewhat unique one in Pitt’s history, as the Panthers had just finished their first and only full season at Three Rivers Stadium in 2000, after Pitt Stadium had been torn down the year before. However, the Panthers also played five high-profile games at the venue prior to the 2000 season, and they ultimately went 7-3 in 10 games there.

In honor of the 20th anniversary of Three Rivers Stadium’s demise, we at Cardiac Hill have decided to take a look back at three of the best games Pitt played at the historic Pittsburgh venue and count them down.

Honorable Mention

Nov. 24, 2000: Pitt vs. West Virginia

WVU Mountaineers v Pitt Panthers Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

The 93rd edition of the Backyard Brawl was a matchup of unranked teams. But Pitt had something to prove, as the Mountaineers had annihilated the Panthers to the tune of a 52-14 scoreline the last time they visited Three Rivers Stadium on Nov. 27, 1998. The game was also the last Pitt would play in the venue, which was scheduled to close on Dec. 16, 2000, and thus it was the Panthers' last chance to correct the record in that particular stadium. They would not let that opportunity pass them by.

Pitt running back Kevan Barlow went off for 272 yards and four touchdowns on 33 carries, and at the time, it was the best game Pitt had seen from a running back since Tony Dorsett amassed 303 yards against Notre Dame in 1975. Barlow's contributions also offset four picks by two Pitt quarterbacks and gave longtime West Virginia head coach Don Nehlen a 38-28 loss in his final regular-season game as a retirement present from Pitt.

As a result of the game, Pitt finished the 2000 season with a 5-1 record in Three Rivers Stadium. Meanwhile, Barlow became Pitt's first 1,000-yard rusher since Billy West in 1994 and helped the Panthers end a brief bowl drought in his final regular-season game with the team before embarking on a career in the NFL.

Number 3

Sept. 16, 2000: Pitt vs. Penn State

Pitt Panthers Antonio Bryant Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Back in 2000, Pitt and Penn State met for what was thought to be the final time for the first time. The decision to end the longstanding rivalry was essentially made by Penn State, which was unwilling to extend the series beyond 2000 despite the efforts of then-Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson. So it came to be that Pitt got one last shot at Penn State, and the team took the opportunity to punch the Joe Paterno-led Nittany Lions in the mouth.

The game was not a high-scoring affair, but it ended in a satisfying 12-0 victory for Pitt. Those 12 points were accrued on two field goals by Nick Lotz and a 62-yard touchdown pass from Pitt quarterback John Turman to Rod Rutherford, who did it all for the Panthers, playing wide receiver, quarterback and kick returner. However, Turman also finished with 272 passing yards, and Pitt got 99 rushing yards out of Kevan Barlow and 70 receiving yards from Antonio Bryant as well.

Of course, the Panthers defense starred in the shutout, with Pitt defensive end Bryan Knight coming up with three of the team's five sacks on the day and fellow Pitt linemen Ryan Smith and Joe Conlin teaming up to force and recover a fumble. And thanks to the Panthers' uncompromising defense, Pitt recorded its first win over Penn State since 1988 before a crowd of 61,221 at Three Rivers Stadium and sent the series into a 16-year hiatus on a high note.

Number 2

Sept. 9, 1982: Pitt vs. North Carolina

Dan Marino Handing Off the Football Photo by © Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

This primetime matchup between Pitt and North Carolina pitted two of the top five teams in the nation against each other and aired before a national audience on CBS, and the result was a close 7-6 win for the No. 1 Panthers over the No. 5 Tar Heels. It featured Pitt greats Dan Marino, Jimbo Covert and Bill Fralic on offense and Bill Maas and Tim Lewis on defense, but even with a future NFL Hall of Fame quarterback under center, the matchup devolved into a defensive stalemate.

After throwing for 2,876 yards and 37 touchdowns and finishing fourth in Heisman voting in 1981, Marino struggled under the bright lights of Three Rivers Stadium, as he threw four interceptions and was held to 125 yards and one touchdown on 15 completions. But Pitt's stout defense, led by Maas, held North Carolina running back Kelvin Bryant to 58 yards and pressured North Carolina signal-caller Rod Elkins to keep the Panthers alive.

That proved to be enough, as the game was decided by a four-yard touchdown pass from Marino to Bryan Thomas and a made extra-point attempt by Snuffy Everett. Those seven points topped the six scored by the Tar Heels on two field goals. However, the win served as a somewhat grim glimpse into the future of the program, as Pitt seemed to have lost a step after its impressive 11-1 campaign in 1981.

It turned out that was the case, as Marino had a rough senior season but led Pitt to a 9-3 record before going pro. And after his exit, Pitt fell into decline under Foge Fazio.

Number 1

Nov. 26, 1976: Pitt vs. Penn State

Pitt Panthers v Penn State Nittany Lions Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Pitt played its first game in Three Rivers Stadium on Nov. 22, 1975, as the No. 17 team in the nation, and in that game, it was dealt a 7-6 loss by No. 10 Penn State before a crowd of 46,846. One year and four days later, the unranked Nittany Lions returned to the Steel City to face the top-ranked Panthers before a crowd of 50,360, and they were sent back to Happy Valley to reflect on a 24-7 loss.

There was nothing ordinary about Pitt's win over Penn State. It was the first victory for the Panthers in more than 10 years in what was then an annual series, and it saw Johnny Majors accomplish a feat that had eluded his predecessors, Carl DePasqua and Dave Hart. With the win, Majors became the first Pitt head coach to defeat Penn State since John Michelosen in 1965, but more importantly, he cleared the final stepping stone to the Sugar Bowl, where Pitt would beat Georgia 27-3 to win a national championship.

The difference between this game and the many disappointments that preceded it was that the Panthers had Tony Dorsett at the peak of his college career, and he won the game almost single-handedly, amassing 224 yards and two touchdowns. He also secured his status as one of college football’s all-time greats by topping 6,000 rushing yards in the game. And when all was said and done, Pitt was 11-0 and bound for a national title, and Dorsett had secured the Heisman Trophy.