Wake-Up Call: Special game for Penn State safety Troy Apke, a look back at a classic PSU-Pitt game, an NFL berth for former hoops star Ross Travis
The best way to start your day is right here at Landof10.com as we prepare you for everything you need to know about Penn State sports. We’ll share our Nittany Lions Wake-Up Call here with you at 9 a.m. (ET) Monday through Friday.
So let’s get to it. Here is your Wake-Up Call for Thursday, Sept. 8.
A house divided for Penn State’s Troy Apke
As much as Saturday’s Penn State-Pitt game means to everyone else, it likely means a little more to someone like Troy Apke.
Both his parents were athletes at Pitt. He’s a backup safety for Penn State.
“They’ll be rooting for me (on Saturday),” the Nittany Lions’ junior safety said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning. “I’m sure.”
His mom, Sue, ran track for the Panthers, while his dad, Steve, was an undersized linebacker at Pitt from 1983-86. Troy, a Mt. Lebanon, Pa., native, has heard the stories about his dad’s career but claims not to remember them.
“I think Penn State was really good when (he) played, and I think they beat the crap out of them,” he said.
Quite so. The Lions beat the Panthers 31-0 and 34-14 in Steve’s last two seasons, the latter en route to a national championship.
That ’86 game was also noteworthy for its contentiousness. Steve Apke got into a scrap with Penn State quarterback John Shaffer, who had been his teammate at Moeller High School in Cincinnati. And after a brawl near the Pitt bench in the closing minutes, the late Joe Paterno ran all the way across the field to intervene.
Things appear to be quieter now, though Derek Levarse of the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader recalled that PSU assistant Josh Gattis tweeted the following in January 2015, and it was largely viewed as a shot at the Panthers:
When negative recruiting goes wrong… Don’t awake a giant by throwing stones!
The Lions went to great lengths on National Signing Day that year to say that wasn’t directed at Pitt, but there was a subsequent Twitter feud between the schools’ offensive line coaches, Herb Hand (now at Auburn) and John Peterson.
I asked Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi about the latter in May 2015, before he appeared at a banquet near Lancaster, Pa. Here’s what he said:
I guess they’ve got nothing better to do, do they? I wish I could give you more details of that, because it wasn’t even our O-line coach. I’ll leave it at that. I really didn’t look much into it. I’ve got better things to do, especially when you didn’t have a whole lot to do with it. I know how it was on our end, that’s for sure.
But it’s just another game. Always keep that in mind.
Auspicious debut for Penn State guard Ryan Bates
Penn State offensive lineman Ryan Bates (whose dad’s name really is Norman) made his collegiate debut as the starting left guard in the opener against Kent State and alternated with Wendy Laurent throughout the game.
As noted by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Joe Juliano, Bates also told reporters on a conference call Wednesday that he’s come a long way.
I quit football in seventh grade. I didn’t play in seventh and eighth grade. I was out of shape, fat, a little overweight, wasn’t really loving football that much at that point.
He developed into a star at Archbishop Wood, just outside Philadelphia, playing on state championship teams each of his last two seasons. And he committed to Penn State over such schools as Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.
Head coach James Franklin has said that he and his staff gave some thought to playing Bates as a true freshman in 2015, but ultimately redshirted him. He added bulk, learned the game and now appears to be a fixture.
Revisiting the Classic 1981 PSU-Pitt meeting
Josh Moyer of ESPN.com compiled a terrific oral history of the 1981 Penn State-Pitt game, largely viewed as the most memorable in the history of the rivalry — not because of any last-minute heroics, but because the top-ranked Panthers, led by Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino, built a 14-0 lead at home and never scored again.
Your final: Penn State 48, Pitt 14.
The principals interviewed by Moyer largely agree that the game began to turn when Lions cornerback Roger Jackson intercepted Marino in the end zone, with the Panthers poised to go up 21-0.
Chet Parlavecchio, Penn State’s fiery linebacker, hastened his team’s comeback with a personal foul after PSU cut the gap to 14-7. As former Lions defensive tackle Greg Gattuso said:
It was an amazing bit of — well, I don’t even know what you’d call it. But that’s when the hitting picked up and the game started to swing. I have no doubt he did it on purpose. He was not going to let us go quietly. We changed after that. I could feel it in the huddle.
Another Penn State interception followed, and by halftime the score was knotted at 14-all. Then came the avalanche.
Jackie Sherrill, Pitt’s coach at the time, blamed himself:
The head coach lost that game because we kept throwing the football instead of running the football, and Penn State was dropping nine people every play. They were only rushing two. So our confidence level with Danny was that we could beat anybody, but that didn’t come to fruition because we didn’t run the ball. And we had a great running game. Point blank: The head coach didn’t do a great job.
It was much like the game plan employed by the Lions in January 1987, when they upset Miami in the Fiesta Bowl to earn their second national championship in five years.
That ’81 game against Pitt was, of course, just for bragging rights. But that was more than enough, as noted by the guy who quarterbacked Penn State that day, Todd Blackledge:
To come back and win and play on the road against the No. 1 team, our arch rival, it doesn’t get much better than that in college football. And to add insult to injury, I guess the day of the game was Jackie Sherrill’s birthday. And I can still remember our Blue Band playing “Happy Birthday” to him. … It was just a great, great night, just one of those really enjoyable and memorable games.
Ross Travis makes an impression, in a number of ways
Twenty-nine former Penn State players are poised to begin the season on NFL rosters, none more interesting than Kansas City Chiefs tight end Ross Travis.
Not only did the 6-7, 235-pound Travis not play football at Penn State, he hasn’t played the sport since junior high. He played only basketball for the Nittany Lions.
And get this: He will be wearing the No. 88 of former Chiefs great Tony Gonzalez. As noted by Terez Paylor of the Kansas City Star, the team has yet to retire the number worn by the Hall of Fame-bound tight end, who hung ’em up after the 2013 season, his 17th in the NFL. He spent the first 12 of those in Kansas City, and logged 916 of his 1,325 receptions while playing for the Chiefs.
As Travis told Paylor:
When I first got here, I had 89 — I didn’t like 89. I saw they had 88 and I took it. It really just helps me keep my mind focused on the task at hand and what I’ve got to do. It makes me work that much harder, wearing a number that so many people take pride in around this area. It’s a lot to live up to and it really just reminds me how much I’ve got to work.
Travis, a forward who averaged 6.3 points and 6.2 rebounds during his career at Penn State, went to minicamp in 2015 with the Houston Texans, who are coached by former Nittany Lions boss Bill O’Brien. Travis spent last season on the Chiefs’ practice squad.
There is another parallel between Travis and Gonzalez, who played basketball at California. He did it while doubling up with football.
Seattle Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham, one of the best in the game, is also a former college basketball player. He played only hoops at Miami.
Finally, a look (and listen) to the portion of Wednesday’s practice open to the media, courtesy of the Daily Collegian’s Twitter account. In anticipation of a loud crowd Saturday in Heinz Field, the Lions pumped up the volume:
Penn State football getting ready for the game and the noise. pic.twitter.com/8910uExuGi
— Collegian Football (@psufootblog) September 7, 2016
Other stories around the Big Ten
- Elsewhere on Land of 10, Wayne Staats and Evan Hilbert report about Ohio State making scholarship offers to defensive end Micah Parsons and safety Isheem Young, who are committed to and being recruited by Penn State, respectively.
- And Stephen Pianovich writes that Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson, the former Lions star, is fine with his alma mater honoring the late Joe Paterno before the Sept. 17 game against Temple.