Penn State evened the latest series in its long rivalry with Pitt with a 33-14 win on Saturday. There are still two scheduled games remaining against the Panthers. Let's take a look at the first two games, what we might expect in the next two and what the future holds for these in-state rivals.
In 2016, Pitt hosted Penn State with an experienced group led by their inspirational leader, James Conner. Pitt entered the game as a 3-point favorite and Vegas was right on the money in their prediction. Penn State's young team faced their first road test of 2016 and their inexperienced showed early as Pitt jumped out to an early 28-7 lead. Penn State eventually settled down and their valiant comeback effort fell just short as Pitt held on to a 42-39 victory.
This past weekend, the roles were reversed as Penn State entered the game as a heavy favorite. Pitt entered the game losing plenty of experience and their offensive coordinator, Matt Canada. This time, it was Penn State that jumped out to an early lead en route to a 33-14 victory. After the game, James Franklin added fuel to the fire for the next two games with his postgame comments.
Next year's contest, a game that will feature many familiar faces, will be held at Heniz Field. With the release of the Pittsburgh Pirates 2018 schedule on Tuesday, the game is likely to be played at noon since the Pirates play at 8 PM that night, much like 2016. Penn State will likely lose Saquon Barkley along with important leaders Mike Gesicki, Marcus Allen, Jason Cabina, Andrew Nelson and Brandon Mahon, to name a few. While those are tough losses, years of great recruiting classes will not leave the cupboard bare. Trace McSorley will likely return for his senior season to lead the offense, but the biggest question will be at running back. Miles Sanders has always been viewed as the heir apparent to replace Barkley, but at this point, there is still much to be seen. The secondary will take the biggest hit on defense, but John Reid will be back from injury along with a group of highly rated defensive backs, including Pittsburgh native Lamont Wade.
Pitt will have a new quarterback, who in all likelihood will be the quarterback for the 2019 game as well. Pitt could lose as many as four starters on the offensive line, but they have good depth on their line, as we saw this past weekend. Pitt's defense should be much better next season as head coach Pat Narduzzi will have another year of recruiting players that better suits his defense. Jordan Whitehead, who was suspended for the game this season, will be a junior and will be a key in their secondary.
Though we're two years away, Penn State will have a new quarterback in the 2019 game. By that time, many of the young players now will be seasoned vets. Penn State's young offensive line should be a major strength by then.
Though Pitt's recruiting classes over the past three seasons haven't been as highly ranked as Penn State's, they are not without talent. Players such as Damar Hamlin, Rashad Wheeler, Bricen Garner and Chase Pine could lead a seasoned group in 2019. Over the years, Pitt's head coaching carousel has been one of it's biggest weaknesses, but Pat Narduzzi has provided stability that has long hampered their program.
As the lone Western Pennsylvania resident on the Roar Lions Roar staff, there is no question I hear more than the extension of this rivalry. With the release of the 2020 and 2021 Big Ten schedule on Tuesday, the future of this game remains in question. Penn State has non-conference Power 5 match-ups with Virginia Tech, Auburn and West Virginia that go through the 2025 season. The earliest this game could appear on the schedule is 2026, but there are a number of bowl games that could feature a Big Ten vs. ACC team. At this point, that is probably the safest bet of when Penn State will next play Pitt after 2020.
In his press conference Tuesday, Penn State coach James Franklin discussed his approach to scheduling. Georgia-Georgia Tech, Florida-Florida State and Iowa-Iowa State are a few examples of annual non-conference rivalries, but many have gone by the wayside due to conference realignment, including Pitt and West Virginia's Backyard Brawl. There have been countless articles written this week, predominately in Pittsburgh, on why this game should be played annually. The reality of this however, is the times have changed regardless of the nostalgia that some may feel. College football is big business now and while there will never be any love lost between the fan bases, the future of the game will remain uncertain.