STATE COLLEGE — Penn State and Pittsburgh will meet on Saturday for the 100th time. The contest will also signal the end of the in-state rivalry for the foreseeable future, as neither team has the other on future schedules.
Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin is 2-1 against the Panthers. His teams have won two straight, with its most recent win a 51-6 blowout last season. Pittsburgh’s last win occurred in 2016, the year Penn State won the Big Ten title.
While excitement among both fan bases runs high, Franklin said he and his players are treating their upcoming contest as any other.
“We’re not burying our heads in the sand; we understand the significance and the impact of the game,” Franklin said. “But our approach does not change. We believe Sunday through Friday that we’re going to prepare the same week in and week out. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing or what we’re doing or where the game is going to be played… none of those things change.”
While the logistics for Franklin and Penn State (2-0) players won’t be disturbed, Franklin encouraged members of Penn State community to flock to Beaver Stadium this weekend for the rivalry.
“We need that thing to be busting at the seams,” Franklin said. “I think we’ve had as high as 110,000 (fans). We need that on Saturday. We need the players on the field to feel that 110,000. I want everyone in the state to feel that 110,000.”
Buffalo last week challenged Penn State’s defensive line, running 58 times for 184 yards. Penn State didn’t surrender a touchdown on the ground, but Buffalo’s offensive line held its own against its Big Ten opponent. Franklin said it was the first time in a while that his team lost the sack battle.
“They created a bunch of third-and-shorts, third-and- manageable situations where they had the ability to run or pass,” Franklin said. “They also kept their tight ends and backs in, or they slow-released them and chipped them on the way out so we weren’t able to get consistent pressure on the quarterback.”
A familiar face will occupy the opposing sideline on Saturday afternoon. Former Penn State safety John Petrishen transferred to Pittsburgh (1-1) late last month. While the move added depth to the Panthers’ secondary, it caused Penn State to change its offensive and defensive signals ahead of the reunion. Franklin said his coaching staff implemented the changes not long after Petrishen transferred.
“(John) and I are probably about 30 minutes from each other back home,” Penn State senior tight end Nick Bowers said. “When we were getting recruited, we kind of stayed in touch. JP is one of my best friends. I don’t think anyone on the team was mad at him. He had to do what’s best for him.”
Penn State last week rushed for just 87 yards after tallying 331 in its season-opener against Idaho. The Nittany Lions will look for more production on the ground against a Pittsburgh team that ranks 32 in the FBS in run defense (82 yards per game).
Clifford ran for a team-best 51 yards last week on a team-high 11 carries against Buffalo. Franklin’s routinely touted his quartet of running backs (Journey Brown, Ricky Slade, Devyn Ford and Noah Cain). Brown had six carries last week, while Slade, Cain and Ford combined for just five. Franklin said he isn’t shifting from his running back-by-committee approach.
“We felt like we have four guys we think we can play with and win with,” Franklin said. “In Week 1, you saw a lot of flashes of that. In Week 2 we didn’t see that as much… I don’t think that picture has cleared up a whole lot more than it’s been in the first couple weeks. I think you’ll see all four of those guys play on Saturday, and we’re excited about all four of their futures.”
While the Penn State-Pittsburgh rivalry will conclude this year, Franklin admitted he wouldn’t be opposed to seeing it resurrected. As a Pennsylvania native himself, its history isn’t lost on him.
“The games have been awesome,” Franklin said. “That first game was an unbelievable game. I think we had the largest crowd in Heinz Field history for any sporting event. It’s been very competitive… There’s no doubt about it — I get it, and I understand the significance of it. A lot of it is just bragging rights, people going back work on Monday… it just hits a little bit closer to home.”
Kickoff from Beaver Stadium is at noon on Saturday.
Elton Hayes covers Penn State for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.