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Pitt, Penn State work to manage rivalry atmosphere

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Penn State head coach James Franklin, left, congratulates quarterback Trace McSorley (9) after scoring against Appalachian State during the first half of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Chris Knight)

No one doubts the level of excitement associated with Saturday’s Pitt/Penn State game.

Pitt senior guard Connor Dintino just prefers confining it to the 100 yards inside the lines at Heinz Field. If any fans of either team are using social media to stoke the flames of the rivalry, he doesn’t know about it, nor does he care.

“I don’t know what they’re saying,” he said. “I don’t have social media. This (talking to a small group of reporters Tuesday) is the most social media I’ve gotten this week.

“I got schoolwork to prioritize. I think it’s a distraction. I’d rather just focus on what I need to do.”

Of course, others don’t mind dipping a toe into the pool occasionally. Such as Penn State coach James Franklin, who wrote the word Pitt 23 times in a tweet this week and then was angry at himself for not using all 280 characters.

“I think I came up three or four characters short, which usually really bothers me,” he said, “because I want to maximize every experience. I probably should have just put exclamation points in.”

He was actually speaking in veritable exclamation points when he was asked during his weekly new conference to clarify his thoughts on the importance of the Pitt rivalry.

“I hear people saying this is a big game, and anybody that says this isn’t a big game is kidding themselves,” paraphrasing a remark made by Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi on Monday.

Actually, he doesn’t disagree with those who believe in the game’s importance. Franklin believes in it only during the week leading up to the game and the three-plus hours he spends on the field.

“This is the biggest game in the world,” he said. “This is the Super Bowl for us. It is the most important game on our schedule.

“Why? Because it’s the game we’re playing this week. Last week was the Super Bowl for us. It was the most important game in the universe. This week is a huge game for us. I’ve never denied that, from the very beginning.”

While the game is important to the fans — 70,000 of them are expected at Heinz Field — players on both sides understand what Franklin is saying.

“You have to attack every game with the same type of preparation, the same type of work,” Pitt senior linebacker Quintin Wirginis said. “It’s not like we treat teams differently in the film room and on the field.”

Dintino understands there will be at least 10 games left on Pitt’s schedule when the Penn State game ends. He said there will be no more pressure Saturday than there will be all season.

“Every game’s important,” he said. “Every game has pressure. The way we talk about this in the O-line room is, it’s the next game, it’s an important game.

“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. It could be Penn State, it could be whoever we’re playing after Penn State.”

Wirginis, however, can understand the hype surrounding it.

“I remember my older brothers telling me, ‘You can’t like Pitt and Penn State. You have to choose one.’ ”

He played in Pitt’s victory against Penn State in 2016, and the atmosphere was special, he said.

“Just seeing the city light up, the atmosphere of that game said it all,” he said. “Just the electricity that came with that whole week and this week, too. It shows how much this game means to people. You’re battling for the state.”

Wirginis said he was recruited by Penn State when he was a senior at Fox Chapel, but he didn’t have much interest.

“As soon as I got the offer from Pitt, I committed to Pitt in a week,” he said. “There wasn’t much of a choice. We’re a Pitt family.”

The game is also special to Wirginis, merely because it’s the last one in the series for him.

‘This will be our senior class’s last time to make our mark,” he said. “If we don’t leave the mark we want to leave, we’re going to have to deal with that.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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