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Pitt/Penn State series will end next year, but Pat Narduzzi still believes it’s a rivalry

September 30, 2018

Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi cheers on his team against Albany in the first half Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 at Heinz Field.

On the Penn State campus, you see the word fans and players live by almost everywhere:

“Unrivaled.”

It appears on $18 T-shirts, hash tags and videos. It shouts superiority for a team that’s been ranked in the top 10 in the final 2016 and ’17 Associated Press polls and again this preseason.

How did Kid Rock say it? “It isn’t bragging if you back it up.”

The Nittany Lions have earned the right to set their program -- “A great program,” said Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi -- on a pedestal. Who needs a rival when you’re unrivaled?

At Pitt, though, a rivalry with Penn State exists in everyone’s mind, especially that of the coach.

“I knew (about the importance of the game) a long time ago,” said Narduzzi, who watched the game as a youngster in his Youngstown, Ohio, home. “It wasn’t something I had to be a head coach to figure out what a rivalry game is. I grew up with this game back in the day.”

The teams meet Saturday night at Heinz Field for the last time in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future. The game is a sellout and a crowd of about 70,000 is expected for the 99th game in the series (OK, rivalry).

During his Monday news conference, Narduzzi took exception when a reporter suggested the Pitt fan base doesn’t like “that team.”

“I don’t know about your (use of the word) like,” he said.

But he supports the idea that the game meets all the criteria of a rivalry.

“A rivalry is a rivalry. Everybody’s got one,” he said. “Who is it against? Maybe there’s two or three of them in your season, but that’s what it is.”

Narduzzi didn’t sense any particular recognition, either in recruiting or others’ perception of his program, after Pitt defeated Penn State two years ago. But winning the game matters for reasons up to and including statewide and national bragging rights.

The winner will have won two of the first three in the current four-game series that concludes next year in State College.

“It’s important in the state of Pennsylvania,” Narduzzi said. “You either walk the streets, or you’re going to walk the alleys after the game.

“Are you going to sneak out of Heinz Field and walk down where you don’t have to see anybody? Or are you going to walk out with your chest up and your chin up and walk right down the middle of everybody and say, ‘Hey, here we are. Let’s go.’

“To me, it means a lot.”

It’s meant so much the past two seasons that Narduzzi put his players and assistants off limits to the media in the week leading up to the game. This year, he loosened those restrictions, although reporters’ access is less than during a normal week.

“I’m going to loosen it up that much,” he told reporters Monday, barely spreading two fingers apart. “We’ll give you two (hand-picked) players (Tuesday). Other than that, we’re going to keep it quiet and play football and let our guys focus on what’s important.

“This game is important to the city of Pittsburgh. We want to keep the importance on what it is.

“Anybody who wants to argue and say this is no different than any other week, it is (different). That’s a fact. If you want to ignore that, then you can ignore it, but it’s a big game.”

Pitt and Penn State will bring 1-0 records into the game after the Panthers beat Albany, 33-7, but were scoreless in the second half. Penn State needed overtime to defeat Appalachian State, 45-38.

“You want to teach your kids to get revved up for every game,” Narduzzi said. “It’s sometimes harder to get up for Albany. It will be easier to get revved up, but you better play with a little anger.”

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