Since today is Black Friday, and because I don’t want to run out of NFL ideas too quickly, today, we’re going to talk college football, specifically, the rivalry that made Black Friday a college day: Penn State vs Pittsburgh.
This article is also a podcast from the Football Attic if you are interested in listening, you can do so below. You can also read the full article if this is your preference.
Every Friday, host John Gidley shares interesting stories of games, players, coaches and teams that aren’t necessarily forgotten, but are not as well-known as they should be.
A Little Backstory
Prior to the mid-1970s, college teams seldom played on the day after Thanksgiving. This was because most chose to play on Turkey Day itself. As a matter of fact, one of the biggest games in the history of college football was played on Thanksgiving Day in 1971, when top-ranked Nebraska won on the road against #2 Oklahoma, 35-31.
As the 70s progressed and the NFL continued its astronomical growth, college games on Thanksgiving became an afterthought, as more and more people watched the Lions and Cowboys’ traditional games that day. The first big college game to be played on Black Friday was in 1974, when second-ranked Alabama beat #7 Auburn in the Iron Bowl, 17-13.
The next year, #2 Texas A&M played #5 Texas the day after Thanksgiving, and the Aggies beat the Longhorns, 20-10. It was on Black Friday 1976 that one of college football’s long-lost rivalries took on a whole new meaning.
The Keystone Classic
That night at Three Rivers Stadium, the top-ranked team in the country, the Pittsburgh Panthers, hosted their in-state rivals, the Penn State Nittany Lions, who were ranked 16th. Given that these two schools have the most successful college football programs in Pennsylvania, they were natural rivals.
Pitt first played Penn State in 1893, and by this point, they had played each other in late November every year since 1935. Rarely had they played, however, with this much on the line, and with this many eyes on them.
In front of a primetime national audience on ABC, Tony Dorsett, that season’s Heisman Trophy winner, ran for 224 yards and two touchdowns, as Pitt maintained their perfect record by beating Penn State, 24-7. The Panthers would go on to defeat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl to win the 1976 national championship.
An Even-Numbered Tradition Continues
The next time Penn State and Pitt played each other on Black Friday was in 1978 when the script was completely flipped: the game was played at Penn State, the Nittany Lions were #1, and the Panthers were ranked 15th. This time, a classic finish ensued: with just over five minutes to play, Pitt led by a 10-7 score. Penn State faced a fourth down and two at the Panthers’ five-yard line.
The field goal unit, led by future Super Bowl-winning kicker Matt Bahr, began to take the field, but rather than settle for a tie (and remember, this was in an era before overtime), Joe Paterno chose to go for it. The decision paid off, as running back Mike Guman took the pitch from quarterback Chuck Fusina and raced into the end zone to give the Nittany Lions the lead for good. Unlike Pitt in ’76, however, Penn State could not cap off a perfect season, as they wound up losing to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, 14-7.
Poor Decision-Making Dooms Penn State
Their next Black Friday meeting was in 1980, once again in State College. This time, Pitt was #4 and Penn State was #5. Despite their high rankings, however, neither were in realistic contention for the national championship. That was a title that belonged solely to the Georgia Bulldogs and their Heisman-winning running back, Herschel Walker.
Still, it was a very big game, and as was the case most times these two teams met, it was a defensive struggle. With the Panthers leading late, 14-9, Nittany Lions quarterback Todd Blackledge attempted to throw a pass out of bounds in order to stop the clock. Unfortunately, Blackledge didn’t give it the necessary arm strength, as the pass stayed in bounds and was intercepted. Pitt hung on for the victory, which was their second in a row against Penn State, a feat they had not accomplished in over 30 years.
The Chapter Ends
Sadly, the final time these two faced each other on Black Friday was 38 years ago, but it was arguably the most meaningful Penn State-Pitt game ever. Yet again, they played at Beaver Stadium. Todd Blackledge was still quarterbacking the Nittany Lions, as well as running back Curt Warner (that’s Curt with a C).
The Panthers’ quarterback saw limited playing time in the 1980 game but was front-and-center this time. His name, of course, was Dan Marino. He was already being regarded as one of the top quarterback prospects in the upcoming NFL draft and would throw a then-record 48 touchdown passes just two years after this game was played. On this day, however, a strong Penn State defense and an equally strong breeze kept Marino and the rest of Pitt’s offense in check.
The Panthers did most of the same, only not as efficiently. Curt Warner ran for 118 yards, setting up kicker Nick Gancitano for four field goals. Gancitano was able to manage the wind, unlike his counterpart, Eric Schubert, who missed three kicks on the day. Penn State won, 19-10, and four weeks later, upset top-ranked Georgia in the Sugar Bowl to win their first outright national championship in school history.
The Rivalry Dies Down
That 1982 game was the last time that a game between Penn State and Pitt meant that much. As the 80s and 90s progressed, the rival schools were rarely competitive at the same time. As has been the case for several classic rivalries, conference commitments (and money, of course) led to the downfall of the Battle of Pennsylvania.
After playing in 2000, the Nittany Lions and Panthers wouldn’t meet on a football field again until 2016. They have played each other once again in three of the last four seasons, but it appears as though this was only a temporary arrangement. But hey, look on the bright side: at least it gives Penn State more opportunities to play Idaho. The same goes for Pitt, as their classic rivalry with Austin Peay can be renewed yet again.
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