Regardless of your collegiate affiliation or personal bias, there is no denying that the first renewal of a revitalized Pennsylvania rivalry epitomized how powerful and compelling the nature of sports can be.
September 16th, 2000 marked the last time the Pitt Panthers faced the Penn State Nittany Lions before their 2016 match-up. After nearly 16 years, the two powerhouse schools of the state of Pennsylvania took the field in Pittsburgh and rekindled a dying flame. The schism of rivalry and camaraderie felt between the massive divide of fans quickly took the stage and pitted two loyal and rowdy fan bases against one another. Heinz Field erupted under the largest crowd for a sporting event in the history of the city itself and refused to settle. After kickoff, the true game began, but the atmosphere merely continued. Pitt went up early and sported a three touchdown lead before Penn State roared back to find themselves down only three points with one final possession left. PSU quarterback Trace McSorley threw an interception in the endzone to finalize the game and Pitt fans rejoiced after holding their breathe. Some Penn State fans felt violated and shorted by exploitation while others shook the hands of their adversaries. Some Pitt fans mocked and gloated about “winning the state” while some saw it as a defining win in a season with more to come. The hype and cliques combined with the near-comeback and a sprinkle of boisterous pride and larger-than-life narratives created an unforeseen aura to the average viewer. Every second of the September 10th competition between the Panthers and the Nittany Lions, from the pre-game commentary to the post-game reactions, flaunted why sports contain the most genuine entertainment and examples of pure heart and emotion.
The announcement in June of 2011 that revealed the hiatus of the Pitt-Penn State rivalry would be broken first established the homer-isms that fueled the pure intensity that came over five years later. Neighbors became divided by affiliation and boasted their team’s excellence and likely future victory and both had reason to believe that; Penn State won 38 of 63 games from 2011 to the 2015 season while Pitt won 33 of 65 in the same span. The competition rested on the same level and the fans took their stances on each side of the scale. The loyalty fans felt towards their respective alma maters or preferred squads entered a new league. They did not want to win: they refused to lose.
The tailgates and pre-game festivities were littered with harsh remarks and slimy catch-phrases like “Joe Knew” t-shirts and “Eat S*** Pitt” chants. By the time the fans began entering the stadium, the Pitt student section stole the mood. The continuous “F*** Penn State” cheers echoed to Forbes and all the way back to Federal. The stage was set once James Conner’s name was met with resounding screams and applause from not only fans of the Panthers but from all that know his story.
After kickoff, the sharp divide of fans forcibly intermingling raised the tensions ten-fold. Pitt came out with a fire in their belly and spurned the Nittany Lions early, going up 14-0 and later leading 28-7. The chip on Pitt’s shoulder came from the idea that a minority of Penn State’s students asserted through a post from Onward State that was titled, “Pitt, at least in its current state, is simply not good enough to be Penn State’s rival. We deserve better.” The students of Pittsburgh heard the trash-talk and responded in the seats. The Pitt lead was spurred by the tenacity of wanting to prove the doubters wrong.
Penn State refused to sit down, however. SaQuon Barkley added a touchdown right before the half and gave the Nittany Lions life. It didn’t deflate the Pitt fans in the stadium, but it certainly slowed the increasing volume. Out of the half, McSorley found Barkley on a wheel route to bring the game within one score. All of a sudden, from the uppermost corner of Heinz Field, a sea of white erupted. The Penn State section drew sly looks from the once-confident Pitt student section.
Fast-forward to 4:49 left in the fourth quarter; the score is 42-39 after a back-and-forth display from both sides. The game hung in the balance while McSorley and the Penn State offense had the opportunity to complete the comeback. The stadium was rowdy with fear as both sides knew exactly what two narratives were on the table. Early in the drive, McSorley lofted a ball downfield to DaeSean Hamilton that would have secured a four-point lead with under four minutes left in the game. Instead, the ball went through his fingers, and Penn State still had work to do. Every fan held their breath, but it wasn’t long before Trace McSorley launched a ball into triple coverage, leaving Pitt defensive-back Ryan Lewis to grab the interception and seal the game. The fantasy ending of a storybook finish for Penn State came crashing down, and Pitt immediately claimed the title of best college football team in Pennsylvania.
The final ticks of the clock really did not end the game. Afterwards, the commentary flew in from every angle, and more shots were being thrown from both sides. In the background of a post-game interview with Trace McSorley, shouts of “Hail to Pitt” were heard echoing down the tunnels leading to the locker rooms of Heinz Field. Those shouts were coming from Pitt alumnus and former NFL superstar Tony Dorsett. The gloating had begun, and Penn State hated to hear it. For good reason, the Nittany Lions cannot wait to face Pitt in Happy Valley next season.
The bad blood has been renewed in full force between these two Pennsylvania football powerhouses. However, what separates this game and this tension from any other sporting event? Teams feel the hurt of defeat and the sting from gloating many times a season, but what jettisons that emotion from those created from September 10th’s match-up? The heightened intensity pushed the Pitt-Penn State rivalry to an upper echelon of competition that cannot be replicated week to week.
The pre-game tension combined with aggressive spectator participation set the scene for an incredible game. Admittedly, the contest itself, for much of the game, seemed a bit out of hand, but that result set up the stage for a possible comeback of great proportions which ultimately reinvigorated the fans in ways that a tight contest could not capture. The excitement and profound pressure resting on the game and the shoulders of the players brought out the best sporting display one can ask for: one that grips to the audience and refuses to let go. That cohesion actually became a two-way street in the Pitt-Penn State contest. It was a matter of fans not only allowing a game to bring them together (or apart) but also intentionally aligning themselves using the game as merely a small catalyst. Sporting events have always lent their results to the feelings of suspense, passion, and heartbreak, and the fans viewing this match-up brought those emotions into a new life with their own hands. The final score of 42-39 will seldom be remembered as a symbol of a high-scoring brand of football because it will be too firmly cemented as the jabbing point between “friends” of two different college affiliations. Pitt and Penn State essentially joined together to take the “game” out of the sport and replace it with pure, unadulterated allegiance.