STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP)Although youth keeps them from fully appreciating their programs’ shared past, these Penn State and Pittsburgh players could occupy a significant place in the rivalry’s history.
The game Saturday between the No. 13 Nittany Lions (2-0) and Panthers (1-1) will be the 100th meeting in the intrastate series that began in 1893. It ran from 1900-31 and 1935-1992 before becoming a four-game series in the late 90s.
But their fourth meeting since 2016 could be the last, for the foreseeable future.
Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke asked the Nittany Lions in 2017 about extending the series, but Penn State declined. That’s in part because of less flexibility with a schedule that includes nine Big Ten conference games. The Panthers play just eight in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Both Lyke and Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour declined requests from The Associated Press this week to discuss the future of the rivalry.
”We are not closing the door,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. ”We are open to a bunch of different discussions, whether that is home and home, whether that is neutral site, whatever that may be. But it sure would make it a lot easier if we both were playing eight conference games or nine conference games.”
Barbour and Franklin have noted that Penn State wants to play one Power Five opponent and two Group of Five schools each year.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi has said he’d like the rivalry to continue. The Panthers won in 2016, with Penn State taking the last two games.
”It’s a big game because it’s a rivalry game, in state,” Narduzzi said. ”You know, again, I’m going to emphasize to our kids, you might be the last team to ever get to play this game.”
The Nittany Lions spent a lot of time in camp changing their signaling system for this game.
They had to do so after safety John Petrishen transferred to the Panthers in August. The Western Pennsylvania native played in just 16 games over three years for Penn State, but was particularly familiar with the team’s communication methods, Franklin said.
Penn State’s offense doesn’t huddle and relies on sideline signals for all on-field communication.
”I think you pick it up pretty quickly,” tight end Nick Bowers said. ”You kind of get the gist from the other signals, but I mean, for the most part, it’s just about your preparation.”
The Panthers are trying to modernize their offense under first-year coordinator Mark Whipple, a makeover designed to achieve more balance after Pitt has relied heavily on the run in recent years. The early results are mixed. Pickett was erratic in the opener against Virginia, thanks in part to an offensive line featuring four new starters. The Panthers took a step forward against Ohio, with Pickett throwing for a career-high 321 yards. The going may be tougher against the Nittany Lions.
”Kenny has that in him every game,” wide receiver Maurice Ffrench said. ”We all just have to click.”
Pitt’s defensive line has taken a step forward despite losing starters Rashad Weaver and Keyshon Camp to season-ending knee injuries. The Panthers rolled up six sacks against Ohio, with Jaylen Twyman collecting three, the most by a Pitt defensive tackle since NFL star Aaron Donald in 2011.
”We’ve got some young guys in there just playing their first games,” Narduzzi said. ”I think that’s something you have to look at, and it’s not what we want it to be. It’s not where we wanted to be (but) we’ll just continue to get better every week, I think, with those young guys playing for us.”
THIRD DOWN WOES
Despite racking up 1,010 yards and 124 points through the first two weeks, the Nittany Lions have been dreadful on third downs. They have converted just 3 of 17 third-down tries.
”For us to take the next step, we need to continue to be explosive on first and second down and be more efficient on third down, and then we’ll be really difficult to deal with,” Franklin said.
Sports Writer Will Graves contributed to this report.
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