It was not long ago that it looked like coach Pat Narduzzi and Pittsburgh were emerging as legitimate threats to Penn State.
Last February, the Panthers flipped the commitment of Clairton, Pa., receiver prospect Aaron Mathews, who’d previously planned to join the Nittany Lions. Shortly thereafter, Narduzzi locked down a pledge from 4-star rated defensive back Damar Hamlin out of Pittsburgh’s famed Central Catholic, beating out Penn State coach James Franklin for the most coveted recruit in Western Pennsylvania.
Then Narduzzi got the better of Franklin when the two met on the field for the first time Sept. 10. Pitt jumped out to a 28-7 lead, then held off a furious Penn State rally to nail down a 42-39 win at Heinz Field in the first of four games scheduled between the ancient rivals through 2019.
Serious momentum, right? Well, apparently not.
Penn State, of course, went on to win the Big Ten with a sparkling conference season that included upsets of Ohio State and Wisconsin. Then it lost on a last-second field goal in a classic Rose Bowl against Southern California, acquitting itself well on the national stage.
On signing day, that translated to a total rout of Pitt on the recruiting trail. Fourteen Nits signees chose Penn State over offers from the Panthers, according to Rivals offer sheets. Just three recruits picked Narduzzi’s program over offers from Penn State.
Pitt did land one big fish, snagging 4-star rated safety prospect Paris Ford out of Steel Valley near Pittsburgh. Penn State, though, finally broke Pitt’s monopoly on recruits from WPIAL powerhouse Clairton, earning the commitment of 5-star cornerback Lamont Wade.
Penn State similarly dominated previous cycles under Franklin, but that was before the Panthers won bragging rights on the field. One would imagine Pitt would get some kind of boost from that.
Instead, the winds have continued to blow hard in Penn State’s favor. In fact, the Nits already are way out in front on the 2018 cycle. With the commitments Friday of Woodbridge, Va., running back Ricky Slade and Erie, Pa., linebacker Jesse Luketa, Penn State has pledges from six prospects who also hold offers from Pitt. The Panthers, meanwhile, have yet to secure a commitment of any kind, let alone one with an offer from Penn State.
That, my friends, is domination.
To be fair, Narduzzi did a good job of milking Pitt’s ACC affiliation for a nice haul out of talent-rich Florida. The Panthers got pledges from seven Sunshine State players to lift their 2017 class to a No. 37 ranking nationally, according to Rivals.
Still, getting beat out by Penn State for some of the bigger names up north took a toll, as the Nits’ class finished ranked No. 12 after getting a last-minute signing from 4-star rated defensive back prospect Tariq Castro-Fields, another recruit who picked Penn State over a Pitt offer.
If that’s how things are going to go in the year after a Penn State loss against Pitt, it’s hard to imagine Narduzzi making headway when the Nits return the favor.
And they certainly appear poised to.
Penn State loses linebacker Brandon Bell, whose absence because of injury was conspicuous in the loss at Heinz Field, as well as a handful of other useful upperclassmen, including early NFL draft entries Chris Godwin and Garrett Sickels. But a huge number of starters and contributors return, led by All-Big Ten quarterback Trace McSorley and All-American running back Saquon Barkley.
Pitt, on the other hand, loses running back James Conner, the ACC’s career leader in touchdowns, as well as key pieces on the offensive line that helped maul Penn State’s front seven for 341 rushing yards in September. The Panthers are also still looking for answers on a defense that gave up tons of passing yards in allowing 30-plus points in 10 of 13 games.
A Nits victory is by no means assured, even as this game will take place in Happy Valley. You have to figure, though, that Penn State will be a pretty heavy favorite to beat its rival for the first time since 1999.
If that happens, then what? Will Pitt win a single recruiting battle head-to-head against Penn State? The last year paints a pretty grim picture. Perhaps Narduzzi has a surprise or two up his sleeve again.
But for now, it appears not even a dramatic win at home can turn the Panthers into a long-term threat to Penn State’s superiority in the Commonwealth.