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HEISER: PSU-Pitt rivalry now more fun than fierce

Steve Heiser
505-5446/@ydsports
  • Penn State and Pitt will play Saturday at Pittsburgh.
  • The two Pennsylvania football teams haven't met on the field since 2000.
  • Neither Penn State nor Pitt is ranked in the AP Top 25.

Nearly two generations ago, the Pitt-Penn State rivalry was simply the best college football feud in the nation.

It had all the necessary ingredients for greatness.

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley (9) is seen here scrambling out of the pocket against Kent State on Saturday. McSorley doesn't view the Penn State-Pitt game as a rivalry, but rather the next game on the schedule.

The two Pennsylvania programs were separated by only 150 miles and were also practically entrenched in the Associated Press rankings.

It was common for their season-ending showdowns to have national title implications. In fact, from 1976 through 1986, the two teams combined for three national championships.

Best of all, the two programs absolutely despised each other.

It was bitter. It was nasty. It was fierce.

And it was hugely entertaining for Pennsylvania college football fans.

This Saturday, the two teams will meet again in Pittsburgh for the first time since 2000.

Sadly, the rivalry has lost much of its luster.

Rare meetings: Obviously, it's hard to sustain a rivalry when the rivals don't play. Since 1992, the two teams have met on the field just four times. The blame for that rests solely on Penn State's shoulders. The Nittany Lions, once they joined the Big Ten, decided they no longer had space on their non-league schedule for the Panthers on an annual basis.

So the rivalry has been mostly AWOL, except on the recruiting trail, where the teams still battle intensely.

That changes Saturday, and for the next four years. It's unlikely, however, that the two programs will agree to meet annually on a long-term basis anytime soon.

Middle-of-the-pack programs: The rivalry is also hurt by the fact that both programs have fallen precipitously since their glory days from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s.

Neither team has finished a season ranked in the AP Top 25 since 2009.

Neither team is ranked in this year's AP Top 25.

And neither team is coming off particularly impressive opening-week wins.

McSorley, Barkley lead Penn State to opening win

Penn State struggled for most of the afternoon in a 33-13 triumph over a Kent State team that is expected to be a Mid-American also-ran.

Pitt managed just 261 yards of total offense in a 28-7 victory against a Villanova team that was just 6-5 a season ago in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly NCAA Division I-AA).

So the winner of Saturday's game certainly won't be vaulted onto the national radar.

It will be just another meeting of middle-of-the-pack programs who are hoping to scratch out enough wins to earn a bowl bid.

Outside of Pennsylvania, it will generate relatively little buzz.

McSorley doesn't see rivalry: Even some of the players aren't getting caught up in the renewal of the rivalry, and who can blame them. They weren't much more than toddlers the last time the two teams played, and weren't even born the last time the rivalry was truly meaningful.

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, who is from Virginia, said Tuesday that the game isn't a rivalry contest anymore and is just “the next game” on the schedule.

The game is obviously a bigger deal than that for longtime Penn State and Pitt fans. And it's obviously more important than that for the respective coaching staffs, who are looking to gain a critical recruiting edge on their biggest in-state competitor for blue-chip talent.

With PSU looming, Pitt coach wants no distractions

Beyond that, however, Saturday's game will bear little resemblance to the ferociously-fought contests played decades ago between two college football titans.

The bitterness has dissipated. The nastiness has eased.

Fans should enjoy the game for what it is now — a rivalry more fun than fierce.

Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.