There will be close 70,000 people at Heinz Field on Saturday night to watch Pitt play Penn State. The rest of the country will be able watch coast-to-coast on ABC in prime time.
Chances are, that’s the only time that’s going to happen this season. That’s what happens when Pitt plays Penn State, and as they prepare to meet for the 99th time this week, that’s something that a hasn’t really changed over the years. It has always been a big game.
“It’s a big game because it is a rivalry game,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said during his press conference on Monday. “They get to come to Heinz Field. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. I think our kids will be excited. I think the city of Pittsburgh will be excited.”
But what winning or losing this rivalry game means to each team has changed over the years. There was a time, when both were eastern independents and the game was played the week of Thanksgiving, that it was seen as a crucial win if either teams wanted to finish the season in a New Year’s bowl or with national champion aspirations.
But the teams are now in different conferences, and winning those conferences is the best and easiest way to achieving each team’s ultimate goal. Pitt losing to Penn State won’t stop Pitt from going to the ACC title game or the College Football Playoff, and Penn State losing to Pitt won’t stop the Lions from making the Big Ten Championship, the Rose Bowl or a playoff game.
With the current series now 1-1, each team has experienced winning and losing, and Narduzzi said he didn’t see much of a tangible difference to the way either teams’ season went afterward. He didn’t see any recruiting advantage or any change in perception for the program. It’s now mostly about bragging rights.
“It’s important in the state of Pennsylvania,” Narduzzi said. “We’ve said this all the time in these rivalry games, you either walk the streets or you’re going to walk the alleys after the game. You’re going to sneak out of Heinz Field, walk where you don’t have to see anybody, or walk out with your chest up and chin up, walk right down the middle of everybody, say, ‘Here we are, let’s go.’ To me, it means a lot. …
“This game is important to the city of Pittsburgh. We want to keep the importance on what it is. Anybody 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.”
The biggest part of the Penn State offense that beat Pitt in 2017 now plays for the New York Giants as running back Saquon Barkley left for the NFL after his junior season.
The Lions will replace him with Woodland Hills alum Miles Sanders and true freshman Ricky Slade. Slade is a five-star prospect, while Sanders is a junior that’s been Barkley’s backup and Penn State’s primary kick returner the last two seasons.
With the amount of talent being pushed in the void, Narduzzi doesn’t expect a dramatically different Penn State offense this time around.
“I think it’s about the same,” Narduzzi said. “You got different weapons maybe that they don’t have in Barkley. Miles Sanders, don’t sleep on that guy. He’s gotten bigger and stronger in the off-season. Catching the ball out of the backfield.
“Sometimes when you watch a guy for so long, you back him up, you start to look like him. He showed some flashes on tape. You’re like, ‘Oh, gosh, where is this guy going to be in another year?’ Is he going to be another Barkley? That’s what he looks like right now. Made some major improvements.”
One of the things the Pitt coaching staff was really looking forward to in the buildup to the Albany game was the ability to get multiple players on the field at certain positions.
Pitt ended up using 55 players on offense and defense alone, and nearly the entire two-deep roster played in the game at some point. It’s a big change from Narduzzi’s first three seasons when Pitt was unable to open up a big lead on Youngstown State or Villanova.
“Just the opportunity for those kids to get in the game, everybody to get coached up,” Narduzzi said. “You walk in this meeting last night, guys are happy because, Hey, I got three reps, this is what I did. Coaches get to find out where they are fundamentally. I think it comes down to the attention to detail you either play with or don’t.
“You earn reps. When you get the chance to get three reps, five reps, seven reps, whatever it is rep-wise, you’re going to get more or less based on what we saw in those game reps. We can take scrimmages, you can throw those out the door. Now it’s all about game reps, what you do when the lights go on.”
THE FLIP SIDE
On the other hand, the Lions have played a competitive football game already and Pitt hasn’t, and Narduzzi said there can be an advantage in that, as well.
“Close games are great because you find out what your teams are made of,” Narduzzi said. “I think they’re better for getting in a tight game and coming out on the right end of it. I think that helps you.”
He also hinted that Pitt might not always have an FCS opener.
“I think you’ll start to see a little bit more of ACC versus ACC,” he said.”There’s going to be times we open with somebody that’s got a bigger name than an Albany in the future. I don’t know if it really matters because your kids are going to get ready for whoever you’re playing. Really doesn’t matter. Sometimes we don’t dictate who we open up with.”
On Pitt’s official depth chart for the Penn State game, Dontavius Butler-Jenkins is now listed as the starter at X wide receiver, with Shocky Jacques-Louis second and Aaron Mathews, who was listed as a starter last week, but did not start and had just one catch, third.
After being left off the depth chart last week, Taysir Mack is projected to start at the Z position, with Tre Tipton and Michael Smith behind him. Rafael Araujo-Lopes is unchanged as the starter at Y.
“That depth chart may be taking some ups and downs in there,” Narduzzi said. “When you look at Mack, the catch he had, he did a nice job. Tre Tipton had a nice game. Obviously what Ra-Ra did. Maurice French did some great things. Dontavius did not get a catch, did some nice things, got his first game under his belt. Shocky, he went out there, it was like he was a third-year junior. You kind of wonder if they’re going to have the deer-in-the-headlights look. He was the same as he was in practice.”