Pitt and Penn State are now officially playing football again, and a rivalry that’s always meant something has the type of currency it lacked during a 16-year pause.
Pitt struck the first on-field blow in what’s currently slated to be a four-year renewal, but the two schools have been sniping at each other for years. That has slowly built to a crescendo under their current head coaches, Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi and Penn State’s James Franklin. These men seem to fit this rivalry pretty perfectly.
After Pitt’s 42-39 win on Saturday, Franklin said at his postgame press conference that Pitt’s defenders were clapping at the line of scrimmage to disrupt Penn State’s clapping pre-snap cadence. This was fine, Franklin said officials told him. He wasn't happy about it at all.
Pitts clapping threw off Penn State. pic.twitter.com/7ao7NVTBId— Collegian Football (@psufootblog) September 10, 2016
Narduzzi responded on Sunday to Franklin’s displeasure:
"I guess that’s just another excuse, okay" the Pitt coach said. "If you go back and watch our first game, it’s a way of telling our defensive linemen what to do. "We’re allowed signals, too ... that’s what we do. Go back and watch tape of our opener, same thing our guys are clapping all the time. That’s what we do to get our defensive tackles to move where we want them to move."
"He guesses" that’s just "another" "excuse."
Oh, yeah, this thing is getting hot. But this isn’t Narduzzi and Franklin’s first dance. Narduzzi took the Pitt head coaching job just before New Year’s 2015, and the two men have been delightfully subtweeting and "I’m not mad, it’s just funny to me"-ing each other ever since. Now that they’re playing each other, it’s all coming to a head.
Let’s run through a history, starting shortly after Narduzzi got to Pitt. (Franklin got to Penn State one year before him, for the 2014 season.)
January 2015: These guys started feuding on and about Twitter.
Pitt’s then-athletic director, Steve Pederson, did a speaking engagement underneath a banner that called Pitt "the premier program in the state of Pennsylvania." This was in mid-January, as the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported.
A few days later, Penn State's offensive line coach tweeted proudly about Penn State’s 2014 wins in the Pinstripe Bowl (against Boston College) and Ireland (against Central Florida.)
We have got a lot of work to do to get where we want to/will be but it sure was nice WINNING two trophies this year. pic.twitter.com/VWxbSDWgDQ— Herb Hand (@CoachHand) January 22, 2015
Pitt lost its bowl game that year and didn’t win anything of real consequence. Penn State’s wins against Boston College and UCF were, of course, important.
Radio hosts in Pittsburgh asked Narduzzi if Pitt was talking mess about Penn State by declaring itself the best in the state. Narduzzi’s response:
"Really, it’s not," Narduzzi said. "It’s more of a pride in the University of Pittsburgh. It has nothing to do with them. I didn’t know they were looking at our tweets. I’m not looking at their tweets, so I have no idea why they’re looking at ours.
Narduzzi had only been on the job weeks. Things were percolating early.
October 2015: Narduzzi subtly hits Penn State about playcalling.
Narduzzi was at a press conference, and he fielded a question about quarterback Nathan Peterman’s development: Was Peterman’s strong performance the result of good play calls or the QB’s own efforts?
The coach’s answer began innocently enough.
"You could have a talented quarterback with a bad play-caller and make him look bad. "You see that around the country," Narduzzi said, "some closer than others."
"Some closer than others" was, almost surely, a cheeky reference to Franklin’s struggles to get more out of five-star recruit Christian Hackenberg.
Despite his status as an uber-recruit, Hackenberg’s best year in State College was as a freshman under Bill O’Brien, and his farewell letter to Penn State thanked a lot of people but not Franklin. That seems like a deliberate omission.
February 2016: Franklin subtly jabs Pitt about its low expectations.
SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey interviewed Franklin in Happy Valley, and the coach went on a riff about how expectations work at Penn State and elsewhere.
"Take another program where we go 7-6. There's other programs that have very similar records, and because the expectation is not the same at those programs, at those places, it's viewed completely different. There's programs within hours of here that had one more win, but you would think they played for a national championship. But again, that goes back to the expectation at Penn State. To me, that's a good thing. But it's that lens. How are you looking at it? How is the media covering it? How are the fans perceiving it?"
Pitt’s about three hours from Penn State. Pitt won eight games to Penn State’s seven.
If Franklin’s version of events is correct, Penn State had a legitimate beef. He said Pitt was clapping on defense while Penn State used a clapping cadence on offense, and that’s clearly not allowed. From Rule 7, Section 1, Article 4 of the NCAA’s football rulebook for 2016-17:
No player shall use words or signals that disconcert opponents when they are preparing to put the ball in play. No player may call defensive signals that simulate the sound or cadence of (or otherwise interfere with) offensive starting signals.
If this was really happening and officials told Franklin it was allowed, that’s a big mistake. Penn State was right to be mad.
That’s not really the point here, though. The point is that Pitt maybe did something illegal that made its rival mad, then called out that rival for making "excuses" when getting angry about it. This series is officially back, and it is glorious.