Saturday night will be the 99th game in the historic rivalry between Pitt and Penn State.
On either side, very few people have a perspective on the importance and meaning of this game like Dave Wannstedt.
Wannstedt was born in Pittsburgh, played at Pitt from 1971-73 and then coached the Panthers from 2005-2010.
Wanny is now working for Fox Sports on their college and NFL coverage but this morning, Pittsburgh Sports Now caught up him to get his thoughts on some of the sub-plots leading up to the game and to get his prediction on a winner.
Both Pat Narduzzi and James Franklin have spoken to the media and each have different messages about the importance of this game and rivalry. Pat Narduzzi told reporters yesterday that “the game is important to the city of Pittsburgh. Anybody that wants to argue and say this is no different than any other week. Okay, it is. That’s a fact. If you want to ignore that, you can ignore it. It’s a big game.”
Franklin and players from Penn State have been expressing a different feeling saying it’s just another game and that every week is their Super Bowl game.
I asked Wannstedt for his take on the differing of opinions between the coaches.
“This series has changed and I’m going to be honest about it,” said Wannstedt. “The reality is that it’s a bigger game for the alumni and fans on both sides than it is for the players and coaches. However for the coaches on both sides it’s big in terms of recruiting. They’re in the same state, they’re battling for some of the same players and whoever wins this game, I think it’s fair to say that there’s probably a recruit or two that are on the fence and it could influence them. I could remember that’s the way it was for us with the Pitt-West Virginia game.”
“For the Pitt players, they’ll be looking at it as they’ll be playing a highly ranked opponent that beat them last year. That will be their motivation. I don’t know that it’s a rivalry for the players. I know it sounds good but for it to be a rivalry you have to play every year. Although it might not be a rivalry game, it is an important game.”
As a player, Wannstedt played in three Pitt-Penn State games and lost each one of them. As someone that grew up in the peak of the rivalry, what’s the game mean to him today?
“I have great emotion for this game because of having the opportunity to play in it. I obviously don’t have the same emotions for the game that I once did because I’m no longer a part of it but I no doubt am pulling for Pitt to win and I think Coach Narduzzi is doing a great job with them.”
Taking emotions out of things, who does Wannstedt believe will win Saturday night?
“I’m picking Pitt to win because I think they’re a better team today,” said Wannstedt. “I like Pitt to win because of what they have upfront on the offensive and defensive lines. You throw the ball to score points but you have to be able to run the ball to win games. I know that I’ve always had the reputation of being a little hard-headed about that on both sides of the ball but I really believe that. I think Pitt has the advantage on both offensive and defensive line. Backs are about the same, Penn State probably has the advantage at quarterback because of experience but I think this game will be won in the trenches on both sides of the ball and there’s no question in my mind that the best lines are at Pitt.”
A big topic last week in town last week was the fact that Penn State choose to sign a home-home series with Temple instead of opting to renew the series with Pitt. Was this done to spite Pitt or did Penn State do it to put themselves in a better position to qualify for the college football playoffs?
“That didn’t surprise me but that’s one of the problems in my mind with this playoff system,” said Wannstedt. “In my opinion, they need to expand it to six minimum but I think it should be eight teams. And secondly, every Power Five team needs to play the same amount of games against Power Five teams. If everyone would play 10 Power Five games that would eliminate a lot of the things that are going on and I think it would even out the playing field. Right now, it’s not as fair as it could be, there’s way too many decisions being made by the selection committee and not enough things being settled on the football field.”
Although he grew up with the rivalry and played in it, Wannstedt never got a chance to coach in it while with Pitt. If he was preparing the Panthers this week, how would he do it and what sort of motivational tools would he be using?
“Although I never got a chance to coach against them, I did coach our in our rivalry game vs. West Virginia. I used to bring in some of our former players that played in that series during the week and show them tape of some of the great Pitt comebacks against West Virginia. However with recruiting these days, Pitt is recruiting kids from Florida and all over the country you really have to almost educate them on the tradition of this game. If you really want to make this a rivalry game the coaches need to educate the players on its importance and bring it back to life for the players because a lot of the players aren’t aware of the history of this game.”