Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi says Saturday’s game against Penn State is a big one. He adds that every game his Panthers play can be classified the same way.
Narduzzi’s actions speak louder than his words, however. He’s shutting off his players from the media, a tactic previously tried by others, including Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio, with mixed results.
“(It’s) just to make sure our guys are locked in. It’s more of an attitude that I wanted to carry into this week that we don’t need to talk. I really don’t need to talk that much. It’s a matter of just focusing on what our jobs are, the execution of offense, defense, and special teams and not having that distraction of after practice, hey, these eight guys want to go to the media,” Narduzzi said.
Coaches and players like to say that every game must be won if they want to reach their ultimate goal. They have only 12 opportunities during the regular season.
However, calling the renewal of the Pitt-Penn State rivalry just another big game is like claiming that Earth is just another planet.
After playing 96 times beginning in 1993, these teams will meet for the first time since 2000. Why the series was halted depends on which side you ask. Going from independents to joining conferences played a role in scheduling, for sure.
They were able to work out a four-game series beginning this year at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. The fans showed they’re hungry for it. Pitt administrators are expecting a crowd of about 70,000, which would set an attendance record for a sporting event in the city.
The Panthers will honor their 1976 national championship team this weekend, another sign of how big this game is in the Steel City.
“I think our guys know the history lessons in the ’76 team. You walk around our building and see the national championship trophies and our guys want to have their own legacy as far as having their own championship team here,” Narduzzi said.
“It’s been a long time since that ’76 team won that championship, and it’s a great honor to have most of that team here before the game. So we obviously want to impress them with what we do and show our championship caliber team as well.”
The Panthers kicked off the season with a 28-7 victory against Villanova of the FCS last weekend. They led 14-0 at halftime and 21-7 heading into the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh’s offense performance was pedestrian, but the defense dominated.
Villanova managed just 1.6 yards per carry rushing and just 2.6 a play. The Wildcats converted just 4 of 16 third downs.
The Panthers will need that kind of defensive effort again against a Penn State team that accumulated 354 yards in a 33-13 win against Kent State in Week 1.
“They’re very multiple. They do a great job with the screen game. They do a great job with what we call RPOs. They’ve got one of the best tailbacks in the country in (Saquon) Barkley. He’s a great football player that can make you miss. I’ve talked to a lot of Big Ten coaches about what he does, and their thoughts on him just to get their takes during the summer,” Narduzzi said.
“So we’re well aware that we, number one, have to stop the run, which is what they like to do. But they have these run-pass options whether it’s throwing a bubble or pop to a tight end or receiver, and they carried out to a lengthy time on the offensive line.”
Barkley rushed for 105 yards and a score on 22 carries in Week 1. First-year starting quarterback Trace McSorley threw for 209 and two touchdowns. Top-flight receiver Chris Godwin caught seven balls for 67 yards.
Kent State did move the ball on the Nittany Lion defense, rushing for 150 yards and passing for 129 more. PSU also forced three turnovers.
As much as we look at numbers when analyzing a game, it’s hard to quantify the emotions that rise up in a rivalry. Lions Coach James Franklin wonders how much those emotions will factor in this one.
“Everybody’s talking about this game and the excitement of it and interest for the state and all those types of things. But you also have to remember that our players were either two, three, or four years old the last time this game was played. So I think for fans and alumni, I get it. But also our players, they don’t remember this game. They don’t remember this game being played,” he said.
With the attention the contest is receiving, however, the PSU players aren’t naive about the magnitude of it.
“We’re very aware of what’s going on around us,” Godwin said. “We see the stuff on Twitter and on social media and stuff like that. We understand the history behind it. So we’re not naive to the fact of what everybody else is is a saying.”
Lion cornerback Grant Haley has some history with the rivalry. His parents met while medical students at Pitt. “Growing up, my dad has been a low-key Pitt fan,” Haley said. The divided allegiances of this rivalry feed the cauldron of emotions which will ripple through Heinz Field on Saturday.
Franklin allowed media access to his players this week. He was asked about Narduzzi’s approach and answered diplomatically.
“Whatever other coaches do at other institutions that they think is going to be the best thing for their program I think is wonderful. My focus is on Penn State and what we need to do to be successful here. Everybody has philosophies and different approaches to things,” Franklin said.
Then he lifted some rivalry tension by attempting humor.
“I’m somewhat scared of our media. So if I told them that they couldn’t come to practice or anything else, I don’t think (PSU beat writer) Audrey Snyder would be very, very happy with me. That was a joke. Didn’t go over very well because no one laughed.”
That tension won’t lift on Saturday. It’s Penn State and Pittsburgh, back again for the first time in 16 years. A lot of pent-up aggression will be released on the gridiron, no matter how much two teams might try to downplay this Keystone State collision.