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Saunders: Franklin’s Words Not Just an Insult



STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — I have to admit it, part of me loves James Franklin’s comments after Penn State’s 33-14 whooping of Pitt at Beaver Stadium on Sunday.

In his opening statement to the media after the win, Franklin delivered a serious truckload of shade directed at the Pitt’s program.

“I know last year for their win, it was like the Super Bowl,” Franklin said. “But for us, this was just like beating Akron.”

That’s awesome. Because that’s the last thing a team that was just beaten on the field wants to hear, right? Not only did Penn State beat Pitt, it wasn’t even a big deal. Minimize the opponent.

It’s the kind of thing that proves that Pitt and Penn State are, in fact the thing that Franklin is attempting to assure you that they are not: rivals. After all, you didn’t see Franklin trolling Akron last week in his post-game press conference. I highly doubt there will be inflammatory remarks directed at Georgia State next week.

The Penn State locker room seemed pretty fired up about the victory at about the same time their coach was downplaying its significance.

Clairton’s Lamont Wade made a reference to the Pitt coaching staff getting keychains made after last year victory on Twitter.

And that’s great. That’s what makes college football rivalries awesome. Beat your rival, talk some trash in your press conference and make every reference you can to the score of the game for the next 364 days.

That’s what Pitt did last year after starting the renewal of the rivalry with a 42-39 victory at Heinz Field. Turnabout is only fair play.

However, Franklin’s words take on a different context in this particular rivalry, because Penn State has shown no inclination to extend it beyond the currently schedule four-year run.

There are many reasons for Penn State not to want to play Pitt and some of them are good ones. The Big Ten going to nine conference games has really put all of that conference’s teams in a tight spot when it comes to out-of-conference rivalry games.

Illinois and Missouri, regular rivals since the 1960s, haven’t played since 2010. Nebraska lost rivalries with Missouri and Oklahoma. Northwestern and Michigan have each seen their rivalry series with Notre Dame end. Indiana and Kentucky haven’t played since 2005.

The teams that have been able to keep their non-conference rivalries going are the exception to the rule, but Iowa knocking off Iowa State for the Cy-Hawk Trophy in a 44-41 overtime classic on Saturday proves that it is possible.

It just requires two programs that are willing to make it work. So far, the Pitt/Penn State rivalry has one. Pitt has stated time and again that they are willing to play “in perpetuity,” to borrow the pet phrase of former athletic director Scott Barnes, and new AD Heather Lyke has made no statements to change that stance.

But the opposite is not true. Penn State agreed to renew the series in July of 2011, under then AD Tim Curley and head coach Joe Paterno. Paterno died in 2012 and Curley is currently serving a prison sentence for his role in covering up the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Suffice to say, neither of them are talking about why they agreed to renew the rivalry.

But the new regime at Penn State under AD Sandy Barbour, has shown no public willingness to espouse the benefits of playing a game that set the Beaver Stadium attendance record for its current configuration on Saturday with 109,898 people packed into a stadium that is purported to hold less than 107,000.

Instead, they’ve scheduled games against West Virginia and Virginia Tech, two programs that are certainly not moving the needle nationally any more than Pitt is. Their athletic department’s branding is dominated by the term “unrivaled.”

And at the mic stand, unprompted, the program’s head football coach says that beating Pitt is just another week. That’s where Franklin’s comments go from playful rivalry gamesmanship to something else.

This is Penn State telling its fans: “This game doesn’t matter, we don’t need it, and don’t get attached, because very soon, it’s going away again.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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