One loss is not going to change the fact that Penn State has a lot of advantages on Pitt.
Penn State can still point to a lengthy winning tradition. It can still pack a bigger stadium (almost) regardless of opponent. It can still capitalize on the buzz that comes with playing on campus versus in a rented building miles away. It still has practice and training facilities that rival any program in the country. Its Big Ten revenue and a powerful donor base give it a far better financial position. Its Big Ten TV deal provides more national exposure. You can even argue that Penn State has more overall talent, depending on how you regard recruiting rankings.
Those advantages ring a little hollow a couple of days after the Nittany Lions dropped the first game between the schools in 16 years, losing 42-39 to their in-state rival Panthers on Saturday at Heinz Field. But they are marks of a healthier program over the long-term, far more than one result in a given year.
After all, Pitt won the last meeting between the two teams in 2000 and never really capitalized on it, notching just one 10-win season while employing six different coaches. With three games scheduled from 2017-2019, there is plenty of time for Penn State to dictate the long-term status quo between the programs on the field.
If there’s one clear advantage Pitt showed over Penn State on Saturday, though, it’s coach Pat Narduzzi’s coaching chops over James Franklin’s.
You will read room temperature-to-warm takes over the next few days about how this loss puts Franklin on the hot seat. These are premature. Penn State has plenty of opportunities for signature wins this season; the way the offense played Saturday should keep it in most games.
Even if Franklin gets a big victory or two, though, it will be hard to shake the image of Narduzzi celebrating in a euphoric postgame mass, and the method by which he got there.
Narduzzi and offensive coordinator Matt Canada put the ball into the hands of their best playmakers, running back James Conner and receiver Quadree Henderson, 13 times in building a 28-7 lead early in the second quarter. During that same span, Penn State’s top duo of Saquon Barkley and Chris Godwin had combined for just three touches.
Then, in the fourth quarter with a chance to tie the score at 35 after recovering a fumble at the Pitt 11-yard line, Penn State failed to use Godwin and Barkley on three straight plays and settled for a field goal to trail, 35-31.
Of course, Penn State put together a great rally. The Nittany Lions’ 39 points are the most they’ve scored in a loss, and Barkley ended the day with five touchdowns. Franklin and first-year offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead deserve credit for that.
But the fact remains that Narduzzi forced them to adjust, and not the other way around. Just like everyone expected, he came right at the Nittany Lions with his veteran offensive line and talented backfield while Penn State often seemed content to try and surprise the Panthers early with players other than their leading rusher and receiver from a year ago. It was an exercise in embracing your identity versus trying to disguise it, and it leaves Franklin looking like he tried to get too cute.
Throw in communication issues that Narduzzi may have contributed to and an ill-timed decision to throw a risky pass that resulted in a game-ending interception late in the fourth quarter while Penn State was in range for a game-tying field goal, and it’s easy to feel as though Narduzzi out-coached his Penn State counterpart.
That’s a powerful advantage to have over your rival, especially since it reinforces the image of Narduzzi as a superior football technocrat to Franklin’s slick CEO. It allows Narduzzi to hit the recruiting trail and say, with authority, “Penn State develops slogans; Pitt develops football players and teams.”
All of which leaves Franklin in an interesting spot. He’ll need to develop a new pitch to prospects in talent-rich western Pennsylvania. Top WPIAL names in the Class of 2017, including Clairton’s Lamont Wade and Central Catholic’s CJ Thorpe, could be even more tempted by Narduzzi’s #StayHome412 movement that has already netted commitments from Central’s Damar Hamlin, Clairton’s Aaron Mathews in the 2016 cycle, and Steel Valley’s Paris Ford in this one.
And for a guy who dismissed the notion of rivalry with Pitt all week, Franklin is going to face more pressure to win in the Big Ten. It’s one thing to lose to Ohio State and Michigan when you have at least asserted yourself as the best team in the state. But with losses to Pitt and Temple over the last year, winning conference games is the only way to excite fans.
That’s the practical effect of what happened Saturday. Penn State’s institutional advantages did not disappear in four hours on the North Shore. Narduzzi’s simple and effective game plan, though, has driven a wedge between Franklin and those advantages. Until Franklin gets a signature win, a popular refrain might be, “Penn State has a lot going for it, but …”
That’s good news for Pitt and an ominous reality for Penn State to address as this four-year series barrels into Year 2.