RIVA: Why The Pitt Game Matters For PSU's Franklin

In the past two years, Penn State has won 26 of 31 head-to-head recruiting battles against the Panthers. Now it is time for the Nittany Lions to extend their "Dominate The State" mantra beyond the recruiting realm.

Maybe you've heard this before: "Dominate The State."

To be more specific, and to put the catchphrase into context, when introduced as the head football coach of Penn State in 2014, James Franklin said the following with respect to the recruiting of high school football players in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania:  "I don't know if I mentioned this before, but we're going to dominate the state. That's the first thing we're going to do."

Franklin said it, not anyone else in the Penn State athletic department or administration. Some others in the media and elsewhere have, perhaps not shockingly, taken the comments out of context and made them apply to more than just recruiting. At this point however, it doesn't matter, because Saturday's game between Penn State and Pitt will be the first must-win game of the James Franklin-era of Penn State football. In other words, it is time for Penn State to show that its dominance of Pennsylvania over Pitt extends beyond off-the-field contests. 

To Franklin's credit (as well as his staff's credit), he has in large part backed up the "dominate the state" mantra he established with respect to recruiting. Thus far, recruits in Pennsylvania and other states — including hotbeds like Maryland and New Jersey — have significantly more often than not picked a Penn State football scholarship offer over a Pitt football scholarship offer.  

The numbers back it up.

Over the past two recruiting cycles where Franklin and Panther coach Pat Narduzzi stood at the helms of their respective institutions' football teams (in fairness, Narduzzi became a late replacement for Pitt's Paul Chryst in the 2015 cycle), 31 prospects who landed at one of the two schools had offers from both Penn State and Pitt. Twenty-six signed with Penn State and five signed with Pitt.

Of those signees, Penn State secured seven of Scout's top 10 prospects in Pennsylvania in 2015 (to Pitt's one) and three of the top 10 in 2016 (to Pitt's one). We can save the debate for a later time regarding which of those prospects had "committable" offers or were offered but not actively recruited, but the numbers illustrate the principle of Penn State's success over Pitt in recruiting Pennsylvania and elsewhere.  

Yet nobody should argue that success on the recruiting trail takes precedence over success on the field. What good are top recruiting classes if you can't win on the field with those top recruiting classes?  

Despite the Nittany Lions' dominance over the Panthers on the recruiting trail, if you were to draft an executive summary of the Pitt and Penn State football teams under their respective head coaches' brief regimes, it would go something like this: neither team has beaten anyone decent and both teams have lost every game they have played vs. a good opponent — although both teams almost beat really good teams (Penn State taking eventual national champion Ohio State to overtime 2014 and Pitt with a last-second field goal loss to Iowa in 2015).  Both teams have gotten by relying primarily on solid defenses with offenses whose elite individual components (such as Penn State's Saquan Barkley and Pitt's Tyler Boyd) have not been greater than the sum of their respective parts.

And often conveniently overlooked by Penn State fans and foes alike — whether it be as a result of willful ignorance, disingenuousness or an agenda (or some combination of the three) — is that Franklin has had to navigate his scholarship matrix and on-field personnel with the albatross of NCAA sanctions that are only now losing their substantive effect. The point being, Penn State's off-field success led by Franklin is seemingly remarkable under the circumstances.

While off-the-field success over the past two years clearly has fallen in Penn State's favor, if we take an even deeper look at the numbers — recognizing it is still a small sample — it is actually scary how strikingly similar Penn State and Pitt have been on the football field in the brief eras of Franklin and Narduzzi.  Using the Massey College Football Ranking composite based on where teams finished at the end of the bowl season for 2015, there are some interesting items worth noting, not the least of which is Penn State's final ranking (No. 49) and Pitt's final ranking (No. 44).  

Penn State's best win thus far under Franklin according to Massey? San Diego State in 2015, which ended the 2015 season with a rank of 41. Pitt's best win thus far under Narduzzi? Louisville in 2015, which ended the 2015 season with a rank of … 42, one spot behind San Diego State.

Penn State lost to three teams that finished in the Massey composite top 10 for 2015: Michigan (No. 9), Michigan State (No. 7) and Ohio State (No. 3), as well as losses to Temple (No. 43), Northwestern (No. 30) and Georgia (No. 25). Pitt lost to three teams that finished in the Massey composite top 25 in 2015 (although no top 10 teams): Iowa (No. 13), North Carolina (No. 19), Navy (No. 22) and Miami (No. 46).

So what's the point?

Pitt and Penn State are at this moment — despite what either fan base or message boards say — very similar teams as it relates to recent on-the-field success. While neither team is currently ranked, and some question the status of the series as a rivalry, it does not mean the game is without meaning.

The fact that the game is a very rare sellout at Heinz Field, the fact that Narduzzi shut down media access to his team, the fact that both schools' athletic directors communicated to prevent an "escalation" after some knuckleheads advertised the sales of tasteless anti-Penn State shirts and the fact that Penn State fans unquestionably subsidized a record season ticket sales for Pitt football — among a litany of other tangible things — indicate that something is there with respect to the importance of the game to both programs.  By way of comparison, there is not, and will not be, a similar buildup of events when Penn State plays intrastate foe Temple the following week.

A win by Penn State on Saturday against Pitt will allow Franklin to extend the meaning of "dominate the state" for on-the-field success, on top of the off-the-field success the Nittany Lions currently hold.

It also provides an opportunity for the Franklin-led Penn State football to get its first truly meaningful win.

For those reasons, Saturday's matchup remains the first must-win game for Penn State in the Franklin era.

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