Penn State running back Miles Sanders’ phone kept buzzing with the news.
With only one career start to his name, the former Woodland Hills star is on the cover of Sports Illustrated after scoring the decisive touchdown in overtime to lead the Nittany Lions to victory against Appalachian State last Saturday. He finished that game with 91 yards rushing on 19 carries.
Sanders’ reaction to being the SI cover boy:
“I’m speechless and blessed,” he said. “It’s interesting, but right now I’m focused on Pitt.”
Sanders and his buddy, roommate, Penn State safety and former Clairton star Lamont Wade return to Heinz Field on Saturday to meet Pitt, a school that recruited them when they were the best players in the WPIAL and the state in 2016 (Sanders) and 2017 (Wade). Sanders lost two WPIAL championship games at Heinz. Wade won his two there.
Pitt swung and missed on both of them, representing significant defeats in its recruiting battle with Penn State.
Wade was at Heinz Field for the Pitt/Penn State game in 2016, sitting with other prospective recruits as guests of Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi.
“Yeah, I was at the game sitting in the front row,” he said. “It was a real good environment, it was a real loud environment. It’s good to actually be playing in it now.”
Pitt’s victory had no effect on Wade’s college choice, however.
“I mean, at the time, I was, ‘Oh, gosh, Pitt won this game,’ ” he said. “But that’s not the end-all, be-all for me. It’s a process. I realized that, and you see where I’m at today.”
He has friends on Pitt team: The game is special for Sanders for reasons other than the rivalry between the two schools. It’s his first against a Power 5 school as Penn State’s starting running back — he was Saquon Barkley’s understudy last season — and he and Wade have friends on Pitt’s roster. Pitt safety Damar Hamlin is a workout partner.
When a reporter asked Sanders on Tuesday if it’s difficult to work up “a good hatred” for the Panthers, he agreed. He just has too many friends on the other sideline.
“It’s just another opponent,” he said. “And it’s a friendly game, so not really. I don’t look at it as a rivalry or nothing, but it’s a special game just playing against my friends that I know back at home.”
Sanders, Wade friends since high school: Sanders and Wade have been friends since high school. Sanders was Wade’s host when he visited Penn State during the recruiting process. They grew up not far from one another, and they played for two of the most successful football programs in the state.
“He’s just got that dog mentality since he’s been here,” Sanders said. “That’s just the way we grew up over there.”
Far short of rivalry: Wade said while growing up in Clairton, he had a better understanding of Pitt’s rivalry with West Virginia than its games against Penn State. Sanders sees the Pitt game as something far short of a rivalry.
“I never grew up as a Penn State fan or a Pitt fan, actually,” he said. “I never really knew about the rivalry that much. I know they didn’t really play each other a lot, so I didn’t really see it as a rivalry or hear about it as a rivalry.
Said Sanders: “It’s exciting. But we treat every game the same every week. We treat it like the Super Bowl. So (we’re) just ready to be 1-0 each week. It’s just another game.”
Pitt's passing game impressive: One aspect of the game that caught Wade’s attention is Pitt’s passing game, led by quarterback Kenny Pickett.
“He’s real elusive. He has really good arm strength,” he said. “He’s a little bit more elusive than their past few quarterbacks, and that’s something that really stood out.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at email@example.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.