By Harry Allison
It’s early September, but Penn State’s game at Pitt on Saturday is a make-or-breaker for the Nits and possibly their head coach, James Franklin.
These in-state rivals haven’t met since 2000, and this might be the best game on a featherweight Week 2 schedule.
“I think it’s an important game,” Franklin said. “There’s no doubt about it. There’s an excitement. We’ve heard about it all offseason with high school coaches. We’ve heard about it with media and things like that.”
Penn State has heard a lot from the media this offseason, both on and off the field. Joe Paterno’s name still pops up off the field. Franklin needs to have a big year on the field. For a program still trying to distance itself from the Paterno-Jerry Sandusky scandal, a few signature wins might help.
Perhaps no Big Ten program fights battles on so many fronts. Penn State is trying to jump back into the top half of the division with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. Franklin is 0-6 against those teams. Newbies Maryland and Rutgers are trying to create rivalries with the Nittany Lions.
That doesn’t even include the in-state battles. It might be just one game with Pitt, but the perspective of this game is huge in the state.
“It’s just a little bit different. This game hasn’t been played since our players were 2 years old, 3 years old, 4 years old,” Franklin said. “I get the historical significance of the game. I get the geographical significance of the game, things like that.”
The next three weeks will be a significant stretch for 2016 and beyond. Penn State has the opportunity to knock down an up-and-coming Pitt program, pay back Temple next week and open Big Ten play with a statement against Michigan in the Big House on Sept. 24. The toughest games in the back half of the schedule — Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State — are all at home. This is a chance to build momentum.
The flip side? Lose two or three of those games, and the Nittany Lions will be flirting with another 7-6 season. That’s the impact of this Pitt game, even if it will be a new experience for the players.
“They’ve never seen a Pitt-Penn State game,” Franklin said. “They’ve never played in a Pitt-Penn State game. It’s an important game, and we’re excited about playing in it.”