Game shows pride of series

PITTSBURGH – As Trace McSorley was facing a pack of reporters underneath the Heinz Field stands late Saturday afternoon, trying to express his disappointment over his last-minute interception that clinched Penn State’s fate in a 42-39 loss to Pitt, the session was interrupted by a vociferous fan.

“Hail to Pitt, Hail to Pitt,” the fan kept yelling.

“You can’t let it get to you,” McSorley said quietly.

Told the “fan” was none other than former Pitt great and NFL Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett, McSorley cracked a smile.

“That’s kind of cool,” he said.

After 16 years of avoiding each other, Saturday’s renewal of the Penn State-Pitt rivalry was more than cool.

In fact, it was a game for the ages, one played with the passion and pride accumulated over 96 previous meetings.

“None of us are old enough to remember when it was last played,” Pitt standout running back James Conner said. “We talked to guys form the 1976 national championship team (honored Saturday), and they told us how much this game meant.”

Though none of the players were around the last time the teams met – 2000, also a Pitt victory – they picked right up where the series left off.

“I’m very grateful for the opportunity to play this game,” Pitt linebacker Mike Caprara, who recovered two fumbles, said. “I had two uncles that played for Penn State. Some of my family supports each team. This game was close to my heart.”

The game drew the biggest crowd in Pittsburgh sports history – 69,983 – eclipsing the previous mark set against Fordham in 1936.

It also produced more points than any game in the series.

“I think (bringing the rivalry back) was long overdue,” Pitt senior tight end Scott Orndoff said. “When you have two big-time Division I programs a couple hours from each other, there’s no excuse not to play each other every year.”

Pitt was more excited for this game, and it showed.

Despite being pinned at their own 1 after an early Penn State punt, the Panthers came out and jammed the ball down the Lions’ throat, rushing for more than 200 yards in the first half alone.

The result was a 28-7 lead as Penn State was defenseless, but the Lions punched in a late second-quarter touchdown and came out of halftime a different team.

Their defense got a semi-handle on Pitt’s running game, at least long enough for their offense to finally start clicking.

“The fact that it was this close at the end of the game speaks volumes for us in the second half,” James Franklin said.

Sparked by the impressive competiveness of McSorley, who threw for 332 yards, Penn State cut Pitt’s lead to 35-31 and 42-39 in the fourth quarter and was banging on the door in the last two minutes before finally succumbing.

“The last time we played them was a loss 16 years ago,” Franklin said. “We had an opportunity tonight to come back out and swing this in our direction. We didn’t get it done. From a fan’s perspective, if you’re not a Penn State fan, that was a heckuva game to watch.”

Franklin’s wrong about that. Though disappointed in the outcome – certainly in the Lions’ slow start – Penn State fans, along with somebody clicking around their dial with no stake in the game, were definitely entertained.

The players enjoyed it, too.

“For us Pa. guys, it’s definitely a rivalry, and even if we haven’t played for 16 years, being a Pa. guy, this is special,” Lion offensive tackle Andrew Nelson, a Hershey product, said.

Though Nelson called the loss “extremely difficult to swallow” because the opponent was Pitt, he also felt the Lions will benefit more, say, than renting a mid-major visit with no return game (my words, not Nelson’s).

“Because of the struggles we’ve had in our past, no one can question our heart – as a team, as an offense, we battled until the very end,” he said. “This only encourages us.”

Though it was the Lions’ sixth loss in their last seven games away from Beaver Stadium, their confidence isn’t shaken. In fact, the second-half comeback may have strengthened it.

“We have more heart than I think in my three years than we’ve ever had,” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “We’ve got a bunch of dudes who aren’t going to give up, not going to quit. That’s not who we are.

For us to turn this into a game, that’s who Penn State is. We owe too much to ourselves and too much to our fans.”

Penn State’s camp annoyed Pitt by distancing itself from the R (rivalry word), but Nelson did not.

“I was recruited by Pitt, and Pitt’s a good program,” he said. “I think they’re on the rise just like we are. I can only say good things about them and their defense. Although it was tough loss to swallow today, we’re excited for this rivalry to continue.”

So, it’s safe to say, does anyone who watched.

“It’s going to make for a great four-game series,” Franklin said, “and we’ll see where it goes from there.”

Where it should go is straight to an annual renewal once the current deal expires in 2019.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.