James Franklin and Pat Narduzzi can agree on something. They both think Saturday’s in-state clash between Penn State and Pitt is a big game.
They’ve just come to that conclusion for different reasons.
The No. 13 Nittany Lions (1-0) travel to the Steel City to face the unranked Panthers (1-0) in an 8 p.m. primetime clash at Heinz Field. The foes from the Keystone State are meeting for the third time in three seasons after the series was renewed in 2016.
Franklin insists he views the game the same as any other. The importance for his team — which features 14 players on its roster from Western Pennsylvania — comes from the matchup being the next one on Penn State’s schedule, Franklin says.
“I hear people saying this is a big game, and anybody that says this isn’t a big game is kidding themselves,” Franklin told reporters at a Tuesday news conference. “This is the biggest game in the world. This is the Super Bowl for us. It is the most important game on our schedule. Why? Because it’s the game we’re playing this week.
“Last week was the Super Bowl for us. It was the most important game in the universe. This week is a huge game for us. I’ve never denied that, from the very beginning.”
Narduzzi, meanwhile, is quicker to embrace the rivalry. The fourth-year Panthers coach stated the game is important to the city of Pittsburgh and stands out for his program.
“Anybody wants to argue and say this is no different than any other week. OK, it is,” Narduzzi said Monday at his news conference. “That’s a fact. If you want to ignore that, you can ignore it. It’s a big game.”
Penn State enters the game as the favorite, but the Nittany Lions have a lot of question marks after an unsettling performance in Week 1. Penn State pulled out a 45-38 win against Appalachian State in overtime on Saturday at Beaver Stadium, needing a late touchdown to tie the game after coughing up a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter. The Nittany Lions dropped three spots in this week’s AP poll after the win.
Franklin said his inexperienced defense did a poor job of tackling against Appalachian State.
“It doesn’t take 23 years’ coaching experience to say we didn’t tackle well,” Franklin said. “I think that’s probably the biggest thing that stood out. Too many missed tackles.”
Penn State does have more experience on its offense, including in senior quarterback Trace McSorley. A third-year starter, McSorley threw for 229 yards and a late touchdown against the Mountaineers last week. He also ran the ball for 53 yards and two scores.
Penn State totaled 205 rushing yards against Appalachian State. Miles Sanders was the team’s leading rusher, as he took 19 carries for 91 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime.
Pitt was a 33-7 winner over Albany, an FCS program, in Week 1.
The Panthers, who went 5-7 last season, took the lead 12 seconds into the game as Maurice Ffrench returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown.
Making his second career start, Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett completed 16 of his 22 passes for 154 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in the victory.
Penn State and Pitt are meeting for the 99th time (Penn State leads 51-43-4) in a rivalry that dates back to 1893. However, this will be the first night game between the two opponents since 1987.
The teams, who did not face each other between 2001 and 2015, are slated to meet again in the 2019 season at Penn State, but there are no games scheduled between the schools after that.
“It’s been a rivalry for a long time,” Narduzzi said. “Rivalries are rivalries. Everybody’s got one. Who is it against? Maybe there’s two or three of them in your season. That’s what it is.”