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Tim Benz: How can Pitt and Penn State allow rivalry to end?

Tim Benz
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Kenny Pickett stretches over Penn State's Koa Farmer for a first down Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 at Heinz Field.

The two most overused words in the English language are “they should.”

“THEY SHOULD lower my taxes.”

“THEY SHOULD do something about tunnel traffic in the morning.”

“THEY SHOULD have better public schools.”

Yeah. They should.

But who is the “they”? And how “should” they do it?

It happens in sports, too.

“THEY SHOULD make Notre Dame join a conference for football.”

“THEY SHOULD do something about Pirates ownership.”

“THEY SHOULD make replay less complicated.”

Basically, “they should” is a more authoritarian way of saying “I want.” And we don’t always get what we want, do we?

That being said, “they should” have Pitt and Penn State play every year in football. They just should.

I’ll stop myself here to prevent the torrent of usual responses from Penn State fans. I know it means more in Pittsburgh than it does in the central part of the state .

I know it’s difficult to schedule permanently because of the Nittany Lions’ Big Ten commitments. I know the administration in University Park doesn’t feel the risk-reward is there to line up Pitt on a regular basis.

I also understand Penn State fans generally enjoy reminding Pitt fans they don’t need the game more than they do winning it.

But they should play every year, even though Saturday night’s rendition was less than a classic.

Horrid weather didn’t help the cause. Neither did a lopsided final score of 51-6 in favor of Penn State. A crowd that was raucous early thinned out quickly after halftime. Drops, muffed spots, costly penalties, sideline tantrums and lousy coaching decisions from Pat Narduzzi hurt the product.

The day itself, though, was a dedication to the rivalry between the schools. I started Saturday at the Duquesne football game. In the stands, multiple people decked out in Pitt and Penn State gear were present well in advance of the nightcap at Heinz Field.

When I parked downtown at about 3 p.m., anyone walking the streets was getting ready to head across the river for kickoff. The T was packed in both directions at 7:30, as those who were heading into the game were streaming toward the stadium, and those without tickets were leaving an all-day North Shore tailgate to continue the party downtown.

Unfortunately, the party for this rivalry stops after next year’s game at Beaver Stadium.

An 8-year-old in attendance Saturday will be driving by the time he or she even has the chance of seeing another one of these games in Pittsburgh. Heck, who am I kidding? That child might have a few kids of their own by then.

Also by then, James Franklin might still be running up the score from Saturday night.

Let’s forget Pitt fans who will be missing out, though. Or even the Penn State fans who will pretend beating Delaware or Ball State is just as fun. What about the Nittany Lions players?

For players Franklin recruits from Western Pennsylvania, they sure seem to get something extra out of it. Cornerback Amani Oruwariye revealed Clairton product Lamont Wade put together a Pittsburgh-specific music playlist — featuring artists such as Jimmy Wopo, Mac Miller, and Wiz Khalifa — in the locker room for the postgame celebration.

“All those Pittsburgh guys, they were ecstatic,” Oruwariye said. “They knew what it meant to get that win.”

Gee. I wonder if the New Jersey and Philadelphia kids in 2026 will be lining up an all-Philly playlist for that emotional matchup against Temple.

After the game, Franklin gave his predictable deadpan response, “We were happy this week to get a win against a good opponent,” when asked if he took any extra satisfaction about beating Pitt on the road by 45 points. But when I asked Woodland Hills graduate and Penn State running back Miles Sanders if it was a bit more special to close the home end of this rivalry for Pitt by that wide of a margin, he said, “Yeah. Absolutely.”

Even quarterback Trace McSorley, who is from Virginia, spoke of a sense of vindication after losing at Heinz Field in 2016.

“It might have fueled me a little bit more knowing we were returning here,” McSorley said. “We had an opportunity to get that bad taste out of our mouths. It’s definitely a motivating factor for me every day I step on the field. It’s a lot sweeter being able to leave the field with a good victory tonight.”

The most frustrating thing about the Pitt-Penn State rivalry being shelved again after 2019 is how willing Penn State is to let it die. Especially since it does seem to mean more to its players than its coaching staff or administration wants to let them admit.

The problem for Pitt is that Saturday proved precisely why it’s dying. The Panthers are just dangerous enough to pull off the occasional win against the Lions, as they did in 2016. But Pitt is also so far below Penn State, it’s impractical for the folks in State College to keep the Panthers around, no matter how much fun the game is.

Even though “they should.”

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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