Can Penn State, Pitt play like it's 1999? A look back at a college football classic

Pittsburgh Tribune Review (TNS)
  • The last time that Penn State and Pitt played at Beaver Stadium, PSU won, 20-17.
  • The game ended when LaVar Arrington blocked a 52-yard field goal attempt by the Panthers.
  • Penn State is a 21-point favorite over the Panthers on Saturday.

The door to Pitt's locker room at Beaver Stadium was slightly ajar.

Any outsider could hear every word — every angry word — coach Walt Harris shouted at his players.

Penn State's LaVar Arrington played a key role the last time the Nittany Lions and Pitt played a Beaver Stadium.

Funny, but the day (Sept. 11, 1999) might have been one of the greatest in Pitt football history if LaVar Arrington's hand hadn't been so big.

It was the last Penn State-Pitt game at Beaver Stadium before the 17-year hiatus that will end Saturday when Pitt (1-0) visits the No. 4 Nittany Lions (1-0) in State College.

Coming off a 2-9 season, Pitt was a 34-point underdog, but the Panthers stayed upright and slugged it out with Penn State, which was ranked No. 2.

Penn State opened the season by defeating No. 4 Arizona, 41-7, and Akron, 70-24, but never led Pitt by more than a touchdown. The score was tied at the end of the third quarter and again in the fourth when Penn State's Travis Forney kicked a 24-yard field goal with 1:20 left for a 20-17 lead that became the final score.

Pitt's Hank Poteat returned the ensuing kickoff 50 yards, but the game ended with Arrington raising a huge paw over the line to block Nick Lotz's 52-yard field goal try with four seconds left.

After the game, Pitt players ran to a grateful group of fans, who were just happy the game was competitive.

Harris not happy: Harris did not approve. The score is all that mattered to him, and he chased his players into the locker room where he delivered a stern speech about winning and losing.

"They were celebrating as if we won the game," he said when contacted Tuesday. "We're not in it for moral victories. We're only in it to win it. We didn't accomplish anything.

"That's my responsibility as head football coach and an adult to teach people about life. Getting close isn't good enough.

"The hurt of the loss was buried. We played the great Penn State in a close game. Well, if we're going to be what we want to be, we have to beat their butts."

Harris believes his players were paying attention. "We shut them out the next year," he said.

Strange fight: Earlier in the game, a strange fight broke out between Arrington, a 6-foot-3, 253-pound linebacker, and Pitt punter Greg DeBolt, all of 6-foot, 185.

Arrington ran at DeBolt after a punt, knocked him to the ground, held him there and threw a punch.

DeBolt, also a Pitt wrestler, said he used a single leg wrestling move to extricate himself from the situation, but it wasn't easy.

"He's a giant monster," DeBolt said. "There wasn't much moving him."

Meanwhile, Pitt's Darnell Dinkins, who Arrington later said was a personal friend, came to DeBolt's aid while the official threw two flags.

ESPN announcers called for Arrington's ejection, but he remained in the game after Penn State coaches Joe Paterno, Tom Bradley and Jerry Sandusky (in his last season as an assistant) lectured him.

To this day, DeBolt, now living in Long Beach, Calif., where he flips houses, insists he won the fight. He said he amuses people with the story, including his girlfriend's father who is a football referee.

"If I ever bring up a situation, telling them I played football, (I say), 'Do you remember LaVar Arrington fighting the punter from Pittsburgh? Yeah, that was me,' " DeBolt said. "Everybody thinks it's hilarious."

Perhaps it didn't look a fair fight, but Bryan Deal, who coached Pitt's specialists on Harris' staff, said he was not worried about DeBolt.

"If we had to pick one guy on our team to go out against Arrington, it would be DeBolt," Deal said. "Pound for pound, he was the scrappiest football player on the team."

Penn State running back Mike Cerimele summed up the game this way: "It was an old-fashioned bar fight out in the back alley."

Similarities to this year: Coaches Pat Narduzzi and James Franklin hope the game Saturday remains civil, but there are similarities between that game and the one upcoming.

►The game is back at Beaver Stadium where Pitt has not won since 1988.

►Pitt is a big underdog, only 21 points this time.

►Penn State is nationally ranked again, both times a week after bludgeoning Akron.

►The games were and are among the last in the series for a long time. The current four-year renewal will end in 2019 with no plans to restart it.

►And, just like Harris in 1999, Pitt's coach is in the third season of a rebuilding effort. "Our program was growing and maturing," said Harris, who was hired in 1997 after Johnny Majors won 12 games in four seasons. "We thought we were pretty tough, too."

Narduzzi hopes his team has the same thought as he tries to become the first Pitt coach since Mike Gottfried in 1987-88 to beat Penn State twice.

Does rivalry still matter? Justin Kurpeikis, who went to Central Catholic and played for the Steelers, was a Penn State defensive end in 1999 and wasn't surprised Pitt kept the score close.

"You can throw out the records when it comes to Pitt and Penn State," he said.

He said he believes the rivalry still matters.

"We talk about how some of that has waned, but, ultimately, there are going to be enough guys on both sides of the field who know how important this is, know that it's a battle for the state," he said. "There will be enough guys to bring it to a level where it will be a highly contested game and good football game.

"And, hopefully, like the old days, just a real tough physical game. I'm looking forward to it."