PITTSBURGH — Pitt and Penn State spent the days leading up to the renewal of their once annual series in a semantic argument over whether they’re still rivals.
The Nittany Lions tried to downplay the stakes, with coach James Franklin pointing out the current roster on both sides were toddlers the last time the two schools faced each other in 2000. The Panthers went the other way, with coach Pat Narduzzi bringing in the 1976 national championship team to give a pep talk on what facing Penn State used to — and still could — mean.
Four quarters, nearly four hours and one well-timed interception by a fifth-year cornerback later, consider the debate over. Pitt-Penn State is still very much a thing.
James Conner ran for 117 yards and a touchdown and caught another and senior Ryan Lewis picked off Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley in the end zone with just over a minute to play as the Panthers held on for a 42-39 victory on Saturday in front of the largest crowd to watch a sporting event in the city’s history — 69,983.
“I would say going to next year, they’re going to think it’s a rivalry now,” said Pitt safety Jordan Whitehead.
One that shouldn’t lack for juice when the two teams meet at Beaver Stadium next fall. Penn State nearly made it all the way back from a 21-point deficit. The Nittany Lions had the ball at the Pitt 31 with less than 90 seconds to play when McSorley dropped back and lofted a rainbow toward the back of the end zone to no one in particular
Lewis, who spent four long years in the program before finally earning significant playing time this fall, cradled it in his arms for the first pick of his career.
“I was just reading the quarterback the whole time,” Lewis. “I saw it in the air and took it.”
And dealt Franklin another significant blow in a tenure that is still searching for traction. A year after losing on the road in Philadelphia to Temple — next week’s opponent — the Nittany Lions currently don’t have bragging rights in any corner of the state after looking flat in the first half before getting back in it.
“The fact it was this close at the end of the game speaks volumes for us in the second half,” Franklin said. “But we’re going to have a hard time if we get ourselves into a 28-7 situation.”
Saquon Barkley almost singlehandedly brought the Nittany Lions (1-1) all the way back. The sophomore running back totaled five touchdowns (four rushing, one receiving), the most by a Penn State player since Ki-Jana Carter did it against Michigan State in 1994. Barkley’s fifth score, a 2-yard dive with five minutes to play, drew the Nittany Lions within three.
“We started off slow, they punched us in the mouth first,” Barkley said. “We responded but we’ve just got to come out earlier and be ready to play earlier.”
Moments before Lewis’ interception, McSorley threw a lob to wide-open DaeSean Hamilton, who was behind the Pitt defense and had nothing between himself and the go-ahead score. The ball smacked off Hamilton’s hands and onto the turf instead.
“For us to get that close and not pull out a win is really upsetting,” Hamilton said. “It just comes down to crunch time, us battling back so far and to see the game slip away from me right there is the hardest part.”
PENN STATE: Barkley is a star in the making but the Nittany Lions curiously didn’t get him the ball when it was deep in Pitt territory trailing by a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Penn State settled for a field goal instead and will have a year to think about what might have been.
PITT: First-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s playbook is deep. A week after using a nondescript game plan to get past Villanova, Canada used a variety of jet sweeps, shovel passes and play-action to get the ball to his playmakers in space. The Panthers ran for 359 yards and held onto the ball for more than 35 minutes.
PENN STATE: Welcomes the Owls to State College in a rematch of Temple’s one-sided 27-10 win last year. Penn State plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Joe Paterno’s first game as coach, a decision that has been met with stiff resistance in some areas, including the school’s student newspaper.
PITT: The Panthers head west on Saturday to take on No. 22 Oklahoma State (1-1) for the first time in program history. The Cowboys lost on a last-second Hail Mary to Central Michigan.
AP College Football site: www.collegefootball.ap.org