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Pittsburgh plays Penn State — and the ghosts of the past

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The official record will note that the Pittsburgh Panthers are playing the Penn State Nittany Lions this Saturday at high noon in the Steel City.

Pat Narduzzi will lead Pitt against a Penn State team coached by James Franklin.

The faces, the forces, the feelings surrounding this Saturday’s revival of a fierce in-state rivalry — the first in the series since the year 2000 — are completely different from yesteryear. Pitt — like Penn State — is trying to give birth to a new era of excellence, an awakening which will make fans in football-mad Pennsylvania sit up and take notice. The Steelers and Eagles own the Keystone State on Sundays. Penn State and Pitt are trying to make Saturdays magical again.

They will try to author new and meaningful memories this weekend at Heinz Field, but for now, the sense of what could be is overshadowed by the awareness of once was.

Pittsburgh aches for the way things used to be… when the wine was young, Dan Marino played quarterback, and Hugh Green — the 1980 Heisman Trophy runner-up — very nearly became the first defensive player to win college football’s most prestigious individual award. The reminder of a glorious past haunts the present moment, lending urgency to this Penn State game beyond the desire to humble a hated foe.

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For anyone under 40 years old, it might seem hard to believe, but Pittsburgh football — for a few supremely luminous years — was a giant. In a brief but giddy period of time, the Panthers’ game against Penn State — played annually through 1992, then briefly revived from 1997 through 2000 before a 15-year suspension — was as big a ticket as any in college football.

It’s true.

From 1980 through 1982, Pitt and Penn State both finished in the top 10. From 1979 through 1981, Pittsburgh went 33-3. From 1980 through 1982, Penn State went 31-5 and won a national title. From 1979 through 1982, the Panthers and Nittany Lions met when both schools were in the top 20. In three of those games, they were both in the top 11 of the polls when they met. Twice, they clashed when ranked in the top seven.

Pittsburgh reveled in the satisfaction of winning in Happy Valley in 1979 and 1980. Penn State not only rebounded by winning in Pitt Stadium in 1981; that blowout knocked the previously unbeaten Panthers out of the national title race. Pittsburgh, the 1976 national champion thanks to the brilliance of Heisman winner Tony Dorsett, was denied a second national title in six seasons. That event marked one of the supremely painful moments in Pitt football history, but compared to the past 30 years, it’s certainly a first-world problem the Panthers would love to have.

Pittsburgh can only dream of playing in a game which is as meaningful in the national championship chase as Clemson-Florida State is now. The Panthers want to become the new face of the ACC Coastal Division and play either Clemson or Florida State for many ACC titles in the next decade under Narduzzi. If Pitt can achieve such a distinction, it will recall its most recent period of greatness not just through the prism of its epic duels with Penn State, but through the Tigers and Seminoles as well.

Hugh Green, defensive end for the University of Pittsburgh, left, and his coach Jackie Sherrill in Houston, holding the Lombardi Award which he won as the outstanding college lineman, Dec. 13, 1980. (AP Photo/Ed Kolenovsky)

Hugh Green, defensive end for the University of Pittsburgh, left, and his coach Jackie Sherrill in Houston, holding the Lombardi Award which he won as the outstanding college lineman, Dec. 13, 1980. (AP Photo/Ed Kolenovsky)

In 1980, Pitt finished the season (after the bowls) No. 2 in the AP poll. Florida State — just beginning to become a national force under a man named Bobby Bowden — finished fifth. Penn State finished eighth. In 1981, Danny Ford coached Clemson to its first and (still) only national championship. Penn State finished third in the final polls, Pittsburgh fourth.

Beating Penn State this Saturday would mark its own great reward for the Pitt football family, but as significant as it is to win this neighborhood confrontation, the Panthers have their eyes on bigger prizes at a time when the ACC Coastal is a haven for new — and very talented — head coaches. This is a year not just to beat Penn State, but to announce to the rest of the competition in the Coastal that Pitt is a force to be reckoned with… no matter what clever schemes Justin Fuente or Mark Richt might devise.

Can Pitt use this game against Penn State to build the kind of momentum which will lead to an ACC Coastal title? If the Panthers can, they’d meet Clemson or Florida State in a winner-take-all-game. Then — but only then — could Pitt football begin to party like it’s 1980.

Until the Panthers make a loud statement, they will continue to live in the shadows of the late 1970s and early 1980s. That statement is a division championship, but if Pitt wants to at least clear its throat before making its voice heard, beating Penn State is a necessity.

Pittsburgh plays Penn State — and the ghosts of the past

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