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Will PSU consider Pitt a rival now? Panthers hope so

The+Panthers+celebrate+their+victory+against+Penn+State+moments+after+the+game+ended+Saturday.+Jeff+Ahearn+%7C+Senior+Staff+Photographer
The Panthers celebrate their victory against Penn State moments after the game ended Saturday. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

The Panthers celebrate their victory against Penn State moments after the game ended Saturday. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

The Panthers celebrate their victory against Penn State moments after the game ended Saturday. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

By Ashwini Sivaganesh / Assistant Sports Editor

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Saturday’s Pitt vs. Penn State game exceeded all expectations, especially for Penn State fans who were skeptical about the scope of the historic clash. But after the game, the Panthers who took the field had only one thing to say.

The rivalry is back — and it’s real.

A record-breaking 69,983 people watched the Panthers clinch the 42-39 victory over the Nittany Lions at Heinz Field. The game was both the highest-scoring game in the duo’s history and the biggest sporting event in Pittsburgh history. If the Lions thought the Panthers weren’t skilled enough to be their rivals Saturday morning, they were reconsidering by Saturday afternoon.

Leading up to the return of the matchup, many Penn State fans took to social media to say that they didn’t consider the Pitt vs. Penn State game a rivalry, inspired by a column on the blog “Onward State.”

Even some Penn State players echoed those thoughts, including first-year starting quarterback Trace McSorley and offensive guard Ryan Bates.

“No, I’m not going to say it’s a rivalry,” McSorley said in a Tuesday press conference.

From the beginning, Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin and Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi differed starkly in their approach to Saturday’s face off. Franklin said the Keystone Classic was just another game on the schedule for Penn State, reinforcing his player’s insistence that Pitt wasn’t worthy and downplaying a contest Pitt touted as the return of an important rivalry.

“I think you have to be very careful when you tell your players that this game is more important than another game,” Franklin said in a press conference last Tuesday. “Then I think you have a tendency to come out and play inconsistent. Guys will be emotionally high one game and low the next. So keep our process the same, focus on the results of being successful and not things that are outside of your control.”

Narduzzi approached the game by specifically treating it differently than the rest. By not allowing players to talk to the media in the week leading up to the rivalry, he acknowledged the importance of this particular game.

Following the game, several Panthers told the press they were motivated to win this game even more after spending the week listening to Penn State fans downplay the competition.

“I like seeing all of the Penn State fans there so we could shut them up,” Pitt fullback George Aston said after scoring two touchdowns in the win.

It can be argued that Penn State only lost by a three-point margin, which doesn’t assert the Panthers’ dominance as the superior team on the field. But Pitt has now won two straight in the teams’ histories and with such a close record in the all-time series, Penn State can’t legitimately claim the Panthers aren’t a worthy opponent.

Penn State fans placed themselves on a pedestal after sweeping all six games played in the ’90s. After 97 games played in the series, the Nittany Lions hold a 50-43-4 edge.

But 16 years ago, Pitt’s team could be described as mediocre at best. With a new team and new coaches, that was not the case Saturday.

In 2019, when the intra-state competitors face off for the fourth year in a row, questions about the rivalry’s existence can be revisited, but the record-breaking attendance numbers and round-the-clock media coverage suggest that the fans are hungry for a Pennsylvania clash — and that’s not likely to change.

Wide receiver Quadree Henderson put on an inspired performance that proved Pitt’s capability as a team in 2016. The 5-foot-8, 190-pound sophomore racked up 201 total yards, including a dynamic 84-yard kickoff return to set up Pitt’s final touchdown.

“Just the fact they’re Penn State [made it a bigger game],” Henderson said in the press conference, adding that “Coach Narduzzi said [Penn State is] arrogant.”

Narduzzi’s 10-5 start in his first 15 games as head coach tied Jackie Sherrill for the best 15-game start in program history.

“Hopefully they think it’s a rivalry now,” quarterback Nathan Peterman said after throwing three touchdowns in the win. “To say that this isn’t a rivalry game for us, that’s not true at all. We were ready and we wanted this win, and I think it showed out there.”

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Will PSU consider Pitt a rival now? Panthers hope so