PITTSBURGH — There are some college football rivalries that feature a team from one state and a team from another.
The dividing lines are pretty cleanly drawn. If you need to know where the front lines of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry are, check somewhere north of Toledo. For Texas-Oklahoma, well, they don’t call it the Red River Rivalry for nothing.
Pitt-Penn State is not one of those kinds of rivalries.
The diving lines between Panthers and Nittany Lions are far from clear. Of course, the eastern two-thirds of the state are largely blue-and-white clad and Allegheny County and Pittsburgh’s immediate suburbs are mostly blue and gold.
But even within those generalities, there are many, many, many exceptions.
If interstate rivalries are the trench warfare of World War I, with slow-moving and clearly-delineated lines of battle, intrastate rivalries like Penn Start and Pitt are modern, guerrilla warfare. The lines go from town-to-town, house to house, and in some families, from room to room.
Almost every single player from Pennsylvania that will play in the game this Saturday at Heinz Field knows someone on the other side. Pitt has 45 Pennsylvania natives on their roster this season. Penn State has 58.
Pittsburgh’s Central Catholic High School will have seven alumni in the game: Penn State redshirt junior safety John Petrishen and redshirt freshman offensive lineman C.J. Thorpe and Pitt redshirt sophomore safety Bricen Garner, freshman defensive lineman David Green, junior safety Damar Hamlin and redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Rashad Wheeler.
Two other Pennsylvania high schools will have players on both sides: Clairton (Pitt WR Aaron Mathews and Penn State S Lamont Wade) and Pennridge (Pitt LB Jackson Henry and Penn State DE Nick Tarburton).
That’s one of the reasons that this rivalry is special, Pitt linebacker Quintin Wirginis said on Tuesday.
“That’s part of what makes it fun,” Wirginis said. “One of my best friends went to Penn State in my grade. We didn’t talk too much when he was in school. He’s out of school now. We’re still good friends, but you’ve got to pick a side. … He’ll be rooting for Penn State, but like I said, that’s the fun part about it. You get to pick. I think all of us at Pitt think it’s going to be a fun game.”
Wade is listed as Penn State’s No. 2 safety. He’s looking forward to a return to Heinz Field, where he played as a member of the Clairton Bears, and attended the 2016 game as a player that was being recruited by both schools.
“I was at the game, sitting in the front row in the recruit tickets for Pitt,” he said. “It was a real good environment, and it was a real loud environment. It’s good to actually be playing in it now.”
Several of the local players including Hamlin, Miles Sanders and Wade have worked out with DeWayne Brown of 2/10ths Speed and Agility. There’s 7-on-7 teams and recruiting camps and plenty of other ways that the players connect. In the era of social media, it’s probable that more top-level recruits are friends than has ever been the case in the past.
These players are between 18 and 22 years old. Before 2016, the last time Pitt and Penn State played was 2000. Some of the players that will suit up on Saturday weren’t even born. None were out of preschool.
But the current, re-born rivalry has still connected the same way the old one did, by playing against friends, neighbors and relatives.
“This is the third time playing them,” Wirginis said. “We won one, they won one. This will be our senior class’ last time to make our mark. If we don’t leave the mark we want to leave, we’re going to have to deal with that.”