Jay Paterno: Latest Big Ten Additions Maryland and Rutgers Provide an Opportunity for New Season-Ending Rivalry
Thanksgiving is time to take stock and be thankful for the blessings of peace we enjoy at home in the United States. We gather our family and friends around to give thanks and pray. We are free to choose where and when we pray and who we pray to.
Amid our freedom and peace, we look across the globe and see Israel and Gaza on the brink of war. We do not go to sleep at night with the threat of rockets raining down on us.
But we also must remember we are still at war. There are men and women serving on the frontlines, but also remember it is not only the soldier who serves but also his or her family. To all who serve, thank you from a grateful nation, as well observe the traditions of this holiday.
Our peace at home enables the Thanksgiving tradition of football. We feast on the great college rivalries, a menu including Alabama-Auburn, Florida-Florida State, USC-Notre Dame and Ohio State-Michigan.
Through the early 1990s the season-ending rivalry game here was Penn State-Pitt. The intense bitterness took a backseat to no one.
In my lifetime, the Penn State-Pitt heyday was from 1973-86, when one team or both were highly ranked. During that 14-year stretch, Penn State won nine, Pitt won four and there was one tie. Every game was a war.
Penn State entered that game undefeated four times, while Pitt did so twice. In seven of those 14 years one or both of the teams were in the national championship hunt and three times one of the teams entered the game ranked No. 1. The teams won three national titles in that stretch.
The only time the undefeated team lost was a 48-14 Penn State win in 1981, but there were plenty of close calls. A 4th-and-1 Mike Guman touchdown run put Penn State ahead in 1978, and in 1976 Pitt was tied 7-7 at the half before shifting Tony Dorsett to fullback, where he ran wild for his only win in four years against Penn State.
That rivalry was the highlight of the college football season in Pennsylvania. When the games were at Pitt it meant Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ home in Latrobe, a small town in western Pennsylvania.
Each year we were there for Thanksgiving, my grandfather walked us through Latrobe’s Rolling Rock Brewery to see how it all operated. The men working had Pitt or Penn State stuff on and they’d yell in good nature to my grandfather.
But that rivalry is faded, and the recent conference realignment probably means it is forever lost to the sands of times. Penn State’s efforts lobbying on Pitt’s behalf fell on deaf ears. Now with the recent Big Ten(14) expansion adding Rutgers and Maryland, there is a lot of discussion about how this will all play out for Penn State.
The Big Ten should go to 20 teams (an even score). The conference can change the name to The Big Score. All kidding aside, the addition of two nearby teams provides an opportunity to get a season-ending game that is close by for Penn State.
From 1993 through 2010, after years of Penn State-Pitt, the season-ending game was against Michigan State. In the years 2005-10, the rivalry was building, and in three of those six seasons, the Big Ten Title was on the line.
Then Nebraska joined the conference and the season-ending game shifted to Wisconsin. It’s a great matchup but a long road trip. It lacks the proximity that sparks intense dislike that makes a rivalry great. Remember, familiarity breeds contempt.
Future Big Ten foes Maryland and Rutgers represent an opportunity to build a season-ending rivalry with a nearby team and where there is some history. From 1966 through today, Penn State had the upper hand in games against Maryland (24-0-1) and Rutgers (16-1). (By comparison Penn State was 23-7-1 against Pitt during that stretch)
In college rivalries, geographic proximity makes it a year-round battle. Penn State and Pitt battled on the field and battled in the same recruiting areas for every player. Players on both teams were high school teammates or rivals. That familiarity adds to the players' intensity. Those factors will be in play against both Rutgers and Maryland.
New Jersey, Maryland and D.C. have been important recruiting areas for Penn State football for decades. That will not change, but now with Big Ten schools in those states, the recruiting will be more intense.
There are also a ton of Penn Staters in the D.C. metro area and in the New York/New Jersey area, so there will be plenty of the inter-mingling and living amongst each other that creates intensity for those rivalries.
The question for the conference is what they do with division assignments and who will Penn State get to close the season against every year. The question for Penn State fans is where you want to visit every other year for Thanksgiving weekend; metro Washington D.C or metro New York City/ North Jersey?