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PSU-Pitt: Finale reflects old-school series

UNIVERSITY PARK — If we don’t see a renewal of the Penn State-Pitt rivalry for years, decades, or even ever, those who were fortunate enough to witness Saturday’s last scheduled game between the neighboring schools were treated to a performance that did the series proud.

Penn State won, 17-10, in an old-school, hard-hitting game that wasn’t settled until the clock struck 0:00.

Many of the previous 99 games between the Nittany Lions and Panthers were similar, one-touchdown affairs, and this one followed suit.

“The intensity level, obviously, is higher when you play a team from the state,” PSU quarterback Sean Clifford said.

You could see it on the field, along the sidelines and in the stands.

“We knew,” Penn State linebacker Cam Brown said, “this was not a regular game. We take all our games the same, but we knew it held a little more weight. You could definitely feel they wanted it.”

James Franklin arrived at Penn State in 2014, and one of his first public missions was “dominate the state,” both on the field and in recruiting.

After recovering from Pitt’s 42-39 win in the first renewal of the series in 2016 at Heinz Field, Penn State won the last three and now owns a 53-43-4 advantage.

“I thought the four-game series was great,” Franklin said. “The first game (and) this last game was very competitive as well. We’re happy to be 3-1 in the series. We’re happy to be 1-0 (this week).”

His players heard his 1-0 message, which has generally served him well, but they also felt the urgency in practice, and it carried over as the Lions’ tackling was particularly sharp.

“We were banging all week,” safety Garrett Taylor said. “Coming out, we were prepared. Our D squad (scout team) gave us a good look. It’s fun going against those (Pitt) guys. They always bring some extra chippiness. The game is special for everyone.

“Obviously being an in-state game, the series means a lot.”

Because Pitt would like to continue the series and Penn State has expressed reluctance, a case can be made that the game is and has been bigger to the Panthers.

“We like to approach each week the same, but we’re not naïve,” Taylor said. “We know we’re going to get their A game every time we go against them.”

After coming in 1-1, having been shellacked at home by Virginia and unimpressive in beating Ohio, Pitt looked formidable here.

But the Lions matched the Panthers’ effort.

“The game meant a lot to people in the city, the people in the state, everybody,” Brown said. “It’s going to be missed, but we went out the way we wanted to.”

Penn State has won more with its offense during Franklin’s tenure than it has when settling into a defensive struggle. In fact, his team has only won three times with as few as 17 points and not once since his first season when the Lions escaped low-scoring road upsets at Rutgers (13-10) and Indiana (13-7).

Their big-play offense somewhat neutralized by Pitt winning time of possession, which has been a trend working against the Lions, Penn State proved it can be patient and win with a run-stuffing defense, a great goal-line stand and an excellent special teams performance.

Panther coach Pat Narduzzi contributed by strangely settling for a 19-yard field goal attempt (which missed) instead of going for a touchdown from the Penn State 1 down 17-10 with 4:54 left.

Other than that brain cramp, both teams did about everything they could as neither committed a turnover and combined for just five penalties.

It left Penn State grateful to head to the first of its two bye weeks (Nov. 2 is the other) with a 3-0 record while also tipping its cap to Pitt.

“All hail to Pitt, to be honest,” receiver KJ Hamler said. “They gave us a good game. Players, they played their heart out. So I respect them. Much love.”

How good either team is at this point remains to be seen, but this much seems clear: If both play as hard for the rest of the season as they did Saturday in regrettably drawing the curtain on a special 100-game series, both will have success as they go their separate ways.

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