Players get history lessons on storied PSU-Pitt rivalry

The Associated Press
  • Penn State and Pitt will play for the 97th time on Saturday in Pittsburgh.
  • The rivalry started in 1893, but the teams haven't met since 2000.

STATE COLLEGE — Penn State-Pittsburgh used to be a storied rivalry, filled with memories for many people.

None of them will put on a helmet when the teams play their 97th game since 1893.

Penn State head football coach James Franklin has introduced a drill he calls the “chaos period” that forces his first-team players to open practice with the same intensity expected in a game. The only difference, he said, is that in practice they aren’t fully tackling. Franklin hopes the drill will help solve PSU's problems with slow starts this season.

The two teams last met in 2000 and will play the first of a four-game series on Saturday at Heinz Field. The renewed game comes after Penn State dominated the series from the 1960s until the teams last played. The Nittany Lions were 27-9-1 over that span and consistently the bigger team in Pennsylvania.

Penn State coach James Franklin said none of his players have even seen a game between the teams in their lifetimes.

"I don't think they were watching many games at 2, 3 and 4 years old," Franklin said.

But the team has been imparting the history of the title "Beasts of the East" on its players.

Penn State cornerbacks coach Terry Smith played in four Penn State-Pitt games from 1988 to 1991 and relayed a few stories about the history of the rivalry.

In turn, they've become familiar with the big names and roles players like Dan Marino and Todd Blackledge played, Pitt's dominance in the 1920s and 1930s when they met exclusively in the Steel City and Penn State's after 1960.

They've got a better feeling now why the game's announcement generated excitement nearly four years ago.

"We're not naive to the fact of what everybody else is is saying," Penn State receiver Chris Godwin said.

Pitt players aren't talking: Pitt players aren't saying anything.

By decree of head coach Pat Narduzzi, the Panthers aren't speaking with reporters this week. Perhaps Narduzzi's hope that players avoid all distractions by staying quiet — which is unlike other weeks when they're permitted to talk to the press — is evidence enough that they want to win badly.

"It's Penn State week this week," Narduzzi said. "I know last week a lot of questions were asked if we were focused or not. Whether we were or not, we got the 'W' so it really doesn't matter. As far as this week goes, our guys will be locked in."

Some Penn State players have been looking forward to this game longer than others.

Safety Troy Apke is from Pittsburgh and his father, Steve, played for the Panthers from 1984 to 1986.

"It means a little more that I know my dad played there," Apke said. "I think Penn State was really, really good when they played and I think they beat the crap out of them."

Penn State cornerback Grant Haley didn't grow up in Pittsburgh but owes his existence to the Steel City. His parents met in medical school in Pittsburgh before moving to Detroit and then Atlanta where Haley was recruited from in 2014.

Recruiting: While Haley wasn't a Pennsylvania recruit, Penn State and Pitt have been competing hard for vaunted Keystone State prospects for years despite the lack of a yearly game.

Franklin promised to "dominate the state" in recruiting when he was hired in January 2014. Since then, he's successfully pitched 21 players from each of the past three Top 25 lists in the state. In that time, Pitt has lured 17 to its program.

Pittsburgh currently has verbal commitments from four of the Top 25 Pennsylvania prospects in the 2017 class while Penn State has three. They're competing for a bunch more as 12 of the Top 25 players still are undecided.

Both Franklin and Narduzzi are aware this will be the first true on-field display for recruits still weighing multiple options.

''Some guys are worried about playing time," Franklin said. "Some guys want to go to programs that are going to be winning and winning consistently. A lot of guys want to go to programs that are going to be able to do both, provide a great education, provide an opportunity for early playing time and want to be successful and want to win. So there is no doubt it factors into it."