Penn State and Pittsburgh will play Saturday for the first time in 16 years, and the renewal of a once-fierce rivalry is going to be a popular story line across Pennsylvania this week.
It will be the 97th meeting. Between 1900 and 1992, the two schools met in every season except for a three-year hiatus from 1932 to 1934. It was almost always near the end of the season, and almost always one of the best rivalry games on the college football calendar.
There have been great performances, crazy endings, fights, accusations of foul play and just about anything else that happens when two teams get together who don’t like each other very much. From the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s, Penn State and Pitt were among the top teams in the nation almost every year, with three national championships and several near-misses between them.
After that, Pitt’s program began to decline and Penn State joined the Big Ten, so the rivalry was shelved from 1993 to 1996. It came back for a four-year run, but the last time these two programs met, the Panthers won 12-0 in 2000.
Even if the two schools haven’t met on the field, they have continued to battle each other for recruits. There will be dozens of players on the field who chose Penn State or Pitt, but had the other team as one of the finalists.
The rivalry is back again for another four years, and with a new name as the Keystone Classic. The teams will meet at Heinz Field on Saturday and in 2018, with games at Beaver Stadium in 2017 and 2019.
Here’s a look back at some of the best games in the rivalry from the past 40 years:
Nov. 22, 1986:
No. 2 Penn State beats Pitt 34-14
This was not one of the best-played contests in this rivalry, but it was one of the craziest. There were five fights during the game, seven personal fouls, three ejections and one Penn State head football coach running over to the Pitt sideline to pull his players out of a scuffle.
Pitt’s Steve Apke, the father of Penn State safety Troy Apke, got into a fight with Nittany Lions quarterback John Shaffer. Apke and Shaffer were high school teammates.
Sept. 19, 1998:
No. 8 Penn State beats Pitt 20-13
Just as they would the following year, the Panthers kept the Nittany Lions from doing much on offense and put a scare into highly ranked Penn State. Sophomore LaVar Arrington, a high school legend in Pittsburgh who was playing at home for the first time in college, had four of Penn State’s eight sacks in the game. After the Panthers cut the lead to 20-13 and got the ball back with a chance to tie, Arrington and Brandon Short combined for sacks on three straight plays to fend off the rally.
Nov. 24, 1990:
No. 11 Penn State beats Pitt 22-16
The Nittany Lions had won eight straight, including a victory at No. 1-ranked Notre Dame the week before. The Panthers were 3-6-1 and had just lost at home to Temple. Pitt used a trick play to take a 17-16 lead in the fourth quarter.
Alex Van Pelt threw to wideout Darnell Dickerson behind the line of scrimmage, and he connected with Olanda Tuitt for a 62-yard touchdown. Tisen Thomas had a huge return on the ensuing kickoff, and the Nittany Lions moved in for the winning score. Tony Sacca’s 12-yard pass to Dave Daniels was the difference.
Nov. 25, 1989:
No. 22 Penn State beats Pitt 16-13
Pitt was looking for its first three-game winning streak against Penn State since the 1940s. The Nittany Lions were without starting quarterback Tony Sacca for much of this game, but backup Tom Bill led the game-winning drive with a couple of key third-down passes. Blair Thomas had 131 yards, and Ray Tarasi kicked a 20-yard field goal with 13 seconds left for the win. Tarasi had a game-winner blocked against Alabama earlier in the season.
Nov. 26, 1977:
No. 9 Penn State beats No. 10 Pitt 15-13
This game featured a lot of snow in the second half and a wild ending. Penn State stopped Pitt running back Elliott Walker short of the goal line on a two-point conversion try to secure the victory.
Penn State led by eight points and intercepted a pass in the end zone late in the fourth quarter. But a quick three-and-out gave Pitt one last chance, and Matt Cavanaugh threw a touchdown pass with 12 seconds left to cut the lead to two. Fans had run onto the field after the touchdown, and several hundred of them actually watched the two-point try on the field from the edges of the end zone. Check out the scenes near the end of this video:
Sept. 11, 1999:
No. 2 Penn State beats Pitt 20-17
Penn State was a 34-point favorite but needed a blocked field goal from Arrington with four seconds left to fend off the Panthers. The Nittany Lions struggled to run the ball, and quarterback Kevin Thompson threw two interceptions.
Arrington added an interception and a kerfuffle with Pitt punter Greg DeBolt, who was also on the wrestling team. The Penn State star picked up two penalties after sparring with DeBolt and D.J. Dinkins, and voiced his displeasure with the Big East officials after the game.
Nov. 28, 1980:
No. 4 Pitt beats No. 5 Penn State 14-9
Between 1976 and 1982, Pitt finished in the top 10 in six of seven seasons. The Panthers won the national title with Tony Dorsett in 1976, but the 1980 team was probably the most talented. Three Pitt players went in the first 20 picks of the NFL draft and seven went in the first three rounds.
Pitt quarterback Dan Marino was actually benched in this game at one point. Penn State had a chance late, but quarterback quarterback Todd Blackledge threw an interception in the final minute. Pitt finished the season at No. 2, behind Georgia and freshman running back Herschel Walker.
Nov. 19, 1983:
Penn State and No. 17 Pitt tied 24-24
Nick Gancitano kicked a 32-yard field goal as time expired to force the tie, but the chaos before the boot made this one memorable. There almost wasn’t a goal post to kick the ball through.
Pitt took a 24-21 lead with 1:15 left, and a clock malfunction happened during the Penn State drive. The players and coaches knew the scoreboard clock was off, but when it showed 0:00, hundreds of Pitt fans streamed on the field to celebrate. Some went for the goal post.
There was still 6 seconds left on the clock being kept by the officials, so all of the fans were eventually removed from the field and Gancitano made the kick.
Nov. 26, 1982:
No. 2 Penn State beat No. 5 Pitt 19-10
In front of a then-record crowd of 85,522 at Beaver Stadium and a national television audience, Curt Warner had 118 rushing yards and Gancitano kicked four field goals to help push the Nittany Lions into a national championship showdown with No. 1 Georgia.
Pitt led 7-3 at the half, but Blackledge connected with Kenny Jackson on a 31-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter and the defense shut down Marino and the Panthers.
Nov. 28, 1981:
No. 11 Penn State beat No. 1 Pitt 48-14
Pitt had won its three previous games by a combined score of 130-3. Marino and company were marching to a national title. Penn State had been ranked No. 1 earlier in the season, but losses to Miami and Alabama had knocked the Nittany Lions off a championship course.
Marino threw two touchdown passes in the first quarter, and the ABC announcers were touting Pitt’s claim to the No. 1 ranking. Then Penn State stormed back at Pitt Stadium with 48 unanswered points in one of the most astonishing turnarounds in program history. Blackledge threw a couple of touchdown passes to Jackson and ran for one himself. Marino threw an interception that was returned 91 yards for a touchdown by Mark Robinson to complete the destruction.