Pitt vs. Penn State: Long time, no rivalry


The Pitt-Penn State football rivalry will be renewed at Heinz Field this fall. Photo courtesy of Pitt Archives

By Ashwini Sivaganesh / Assistant Sports Editor

One of Pennsylvania’s most storied football rivalries is back — for now.

After a 16-year hiatus, the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Penn State Nittany Lions will battle it out on the gridiron for the 97th time this September 10 at noon at Heinz Field. The long-awaited clash is finally back, but only for the next four years.

This year’s game will be the first of a four-game series, with the Panthers hosting the 2016 and 2018 games and the Nittany Lions hosting the 2017 and 2019 games at Beaver Stadium. The game will air live on ESPN or ABC, but many Pitt students are scrambling to purchase season tickets now to guarantee a spot at Heinz Field when the blue and white comes to town.

The Penn State vs. Pitt series first began in 1893 when the teams faced each other in State College. It was held every year from 1900 to 1931 and 1935 to 1992.

Penn State came out on top in the first game, but Pitt won 14 straight matchups from 1922 to 1938.

Many of the most thrilling battles in the series took place in the 1970s and 1980s, when the two teams were constantly jockeying for a position near the top of the polls and almost always in national title contention. Penn State leads the all-time series, 50-42-4.

Pitt capped off a perfect regular season in 1976 with a 24-7 victory over Penn State on the way to the team’s first national championship in 39 seasons.

Five years later, the Nittany Lions roared back from a 14-0 deficit with 48 unanswered points to shock the previously undefeated Panthers, 48-14, knocking them out of the title game.

After a four-year break, the matchup returned from 1997 to 2000 before disappearing seemingly for good.

Pitt shut out Penn State, 12-0, in the  last showdown at Three Rivers Stadium September 16, 2000. The heated rivalry shut down shortly after, when Penn State tried to leverage a disproportionate number of home games in the series.

The Nittany Lions’ suggestion wasn’t too far-fetched, considering that Pitt has fewer than 20,000 undergraduates on its main campus while Penn State has over 40,000 in University Park, and Beaver Stadium houses roughly 107,000 seats compared to slightly more than 65,000 at Heinz Field.

Penn State had also won seven meetings in a row between the teams before the Panthers’ victory in 2000. But Pitt didn’t budge.

The renewal of this intense rivalry is without a doubt the most anticipated home game for Pitt this season. Although it’s not a conference game, bragging rights are at stake for players and fans who want to boast about being the best in Pennsylvania.

Panthers fans especially are itching for a satisfying showdown, as they’ve been left with few notable occasions for smack talk in the past five years.

Once Penn State was no longer a fixture on the schedule, Pitt fans put all their energy into the Backyard Brawl — the nickname for the Pitt-West Virginia rivalry games — but that series discontinued as well when West Virginia moved to the Big 12.

The teams aren’t scheduled to face off again until 2022 in another four-game series. The Mountaineers won the last matchup in Morgantown, West Virginia, 21-20, in 2011.

Since joining the ACC, Pitt has yet to play a non-conference game against either one of its longtime rivals.

Campus Insiders has both Pitt and PSU ranked just outside the top 25 in its post-spring preseason rankings, with Penn State coming in at No. 33 and Pitt checking in at No. 41.

While that means the Nittany Lions are a slim favorite, the Panthers will have the home advantage of a raucous Heinz Field crowd on their side. And since Penn State lost quarterback Christian Hackenberg to the NFL, this year’s matchup is anyone’s game.

Based on Pitt and Penn State’s history, it’s hard to tell how many more chances there will be to catch this rivalry in person, so don’t miss it.

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