By Julie Glass
Penn State travels to Pitt on Saturday for a renewal of what had been a great Pennsylvania rivalry.
Or is it?
“No, I’m not saying it’s a rivalry,” redshirt sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley said yesterday, and his coach and several teammates agreed.
The teams will meet at noon Saturday at Heinz Field in the first game of a four-game home-and-home series. The Nittany Lions have played the Panthers 96 times, more than any other team, and Penn State is 50-42-4 against Pitt.
But as Penn State coach James Franklin pointed out, at the time of Pitt and Penn State’s most recent meeting in 2000, his players were toddlers. He also admitted the game will have a “major emphasis on it,” by virtue of the teams’ shared state and history. But the Nittany Lions coach said a rivalry to him is not something that needs to be discussed — it’s just something the fans, media, players and coaches all accept.
“Everybody’s talking about this game and the excitement of it and interest for the state and all those types of things,” Franklin said. “For fans and alumni, I get it. But, as for our players, they don’t remember this game. They don’t remember this game being played.”
The same is true for Pitt’s roster, but that didn’t stop coach Pat Narduzzi from locking down media availability for his players this week in order to “eliminate all distractions” ahead of the game. Narduzzi also said he was going to make sure his players embraced and understood what the rivalry was all about.
Aside from cornerbacks coach Terry Smith — who played against Pitt as a wide receiver for Penn State from 1987-91 — telling the players about his experience with the game, Penn State has stood by that sports cliche of the next-game mentality, attempting not to put any more importance on playing Pitt than any other team.
“I don’t think we have to talk about it a whole lot because they understand, and they hear it all the time,” Franklin said. “They have friends that play at Pitt. They have family members that went to Pitt. There’s a lot of that. So, I think it naturally just happens.”
There are eight players on Penn State’s roster from the Pittsburgh area as well as three coaches in Smith, offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and offensive line coach Matt Limegrover.
Franklin, who grew up in Bucks Count, just outside of Philly, also has his own connections despite never having played or coached a game there. His dad is from Pittsburgh, and Franklin spent all of his holidays and summers of his youth in Pittsburgh. His grandma’s house was in the Hill District on Bedford Avenue close to Pitt Stadium. He also has a cousin who works at Pitt, and one of his best friends lives in the city.
Junior cornerback Grant Haley also has family in Pittsburgh, where his dad grew up. His mom went to Penn State, but both she and Haley’s father went to medical school at Pitt, which is where they met. Haley said his dad’s allegiance doesn’t lie too strongly with his hometown school.
“Growing up, my dad has been a low-key Pitt fan,” Haley said. “He hasn’t been one of those really rabid fans. Besides the Steelers, that’s about it. So, he wasn’t too crazy about it, you know.”
Junior safety Troy Apke is a Mt. Lebanon native whose father played for Pitt and mother ran for the track and field team. Apke also will play against his former Mt. Lebanon High School teammate, Alex Bookser, a redshirt sophomore offensive lineman for Pitt.
“It’s exciting. I’m looking forward to it,” Apke said. “I know a lot of people there, a lot of people are going to be there that know me. And, hopefully, I can just play the best I can and just show them. Hopefully, they’re proud of me and what I did.”
Well, that is if they can even make it into Heinz Field. There’s been a scramble among the Penn State team to gather enough tickets for all these Pittsburgh connections. Apke said he has solicited “everyone” on his team for extra tickets while Franklin said Moorhead’s wife and Limegrover’s wife have been calling his wife also looking for more tickets.
That’s a lot of enthusiasm for a non-rivalry.