Popular perception holds that Penn State football was practically invented by Joe Paterno, but in 1919, seven years before Paterno was even born, the Nittany Lions were on the verge of one of the best runs in school history, needing to beat rival Pittsburgh for the first time since 1912 to solidify their standing as a power and earn recognition as champions of the East.
They would do so, in part, with a play that would be remembered as one of the greatest in college football history, had it not happened long before television cameras could record it for posterity. It's a play entrenched deep in the lore of a great college football rivalry that is set to finally be revived on Saturday after a 15-season hiatus, when the Nittany Lions visit Pittsburgh for the first meeting in a four-year series.
At the time, Penn State's gutsy play call was everything football strategy typically wasn't: aggressive and risky, the type of play that could make or break a coaching tenure, even if the coach didn't design the play or call it himself. Hugo Bezdek was in his second season as Penn State's head coach, also coming off his third season as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, positions he held simultaneously. The 1918 season had been shortened because of World War I, and in 1919, Bezdek didn't return to State College until the end of September, deep into preseason practice only a few days before the first game of the year, because he had been busy finishing his final Major League Baseball campaign.
Baseball wasn't the only thing in Pittsburgh that had been on Bezdek's mind, though. Upon taking the Penn State job, he had a specific goal: Beat Pop Warner and the Pitt Panthers. Penn State had yet to beat Warner, scoring a total of 12 points in four straight losses, including a 28-6 defeat in the first Bezdek-Warner showdown. For more than a year, Bezdek and his staff made a specific point of scouting Pitt as much as possible, aiming to turn the tables in the rivalry on Thanksgiving 1919 at Forbes Field.
"The strategy of the Penn State-Pitt game was one of the finest examples of football planning I have ever known," Bezdek told sportswriter Hugh S. Fullerton after the 1919 game. "Lest this seem a bit immodest, permit me to say that I am leaving myself out of the thing entirely. The game with Pittsburgh is, of course, the most important one on the schedule of the Penn State team every year. In 1918, when I took charge at Penn State as coach, the one big fact that was impressed upon my mind was that we must lick Warner."
Penn State entered the season finale with a 6-1 record. Pitt was 6-1-1. And so, after stopping Pitt in the red zone on the second drive of the '19 game, Penn State lined up with the ball at its own eight-yard line. Months of baseball and football games and rainy fall weather made the grass at Forbes Field predictably wet and muddy, the kind of playing surface that lends itself to conservative football strategy. Bezdek and his team were prepared for it. Penn State lined up to punt on first down -- not uncommon for the time -- but had no intention of actually doing so.
Quarterback Harry Robb called for a play that the Lions had been practicing thanks to the scouting of assistant coach Dick Harlow, who found that Pitt brought the house in punting situations, rushing nine or 10 players in the hopes of blocking the kick. While he had struggled to accurately throw the ball in practice, according to Ridge Riley's book "Road To Number One," fullback/punter Bill Hess was tasked with making the play happen, because Penn State knew that Pitt would not suspect a trick play from someone who had never attempted a pass in game. Out wide was Bob Higgins, a two-time All-American end.
Lined up deep, Hess took the snap, and as predicted, Pitt rushed nearly everyone. Hess rolled right, in his own end zone, and let loose a pass to Higgins, who Pitt assumed would run down the field in punt coverage. Higgins corralled the pass and got a couple blocks -- including one on Pitt's returner -- and found nothing but open space ahead of him. The fake had been executed perfectly, and Higgins dashed the length of the field into the end zone for a touchdown that flabbergasted the Panthers.
A 1965 Sports Illustrated story by Dan Jenkins recounts the play, saying that "when Bezdek saw the play coming, he ducked under the bench and did not come out until an assistant manager assured him that Higgins had scored." A 92-yard touchdown pass would be demoralizing in any era of football; in this case, it was a fake from Penn State's own end zone, a surprising and aggressive counter to Pitt's aggressive punt rush under the natural assumption that the Lions would be conservative in such a situation. It was a decision by a Penn State team hell-bent on making a statement and rattling its rival to shift the balance of power.
"The unexpected move that resulted in the first touchdown had cracked the morale of the Pitt team," Bezdek said, "and we smashed them for another touchdown before their defense rallied and stiffened."
Penn State would go on to win 20-0 and be crowned champions of the East, and its players and coaches could barely get into the locker room afterward because fans and former players had crowded it in celebration of the milestone victory.
The forward pass had only been legal for 14 seasons and was still used sparingly in football at the time, but 97 years later, Higgins' touchdown still stands as the longest pass play in Penn State football history. It was thrown by a player who had never before attempted a pass, and it helped deliver a long-awaited rivalry win that stands as the most memorable moment in a three-year period in which Penn State did not lose a game.
A month later, Fullerton devoted a newspaper feature story to the play, with Bezdek offering an as-told-to account of scouting Pitt and the game itself. Nearly a half page in the New York Evening World was reserved for the story as part of Fullerton's "History-Making Football Plays" series, with an illustrated diagram of how the Higgins touchdown happened under the heading "Penn State's Clever Scoring Trick That Made Gridiron History."
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Penn State "licked" Warner and Pitt in 1919, just as Bezdek hoped. But it was the only time Penn State would beat Pitt in a 23-game period in which the Nittany Lions were, undoubtedly, the little brother in the state of Pennsylvania.
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There are numerous types of college football rivalries. Penn State-Pitt has fluctuated between lopsided big-and-little-brother eras; a brief period in the 1970s and early '80s in which both were competing for national titles, making the rivalry one of the most important annual games nationally; and, lately, the realignment casualty that has been a rivalry only in recruiting and among angry fans sniping at each other on the internet.
At the beginning, Penn State held the upper hand, winning 12 of the first 15 meetings, dating back to 1893. But Pitt would grow to have substantial advantages. It was the team in the big city; Penn State -- still a college, not yet a university -- was the far-flung outpost located in the middle of nowhere. From 1903-66, the game was played in State College only four times, despite protests from Bezdek about the unfairness of the annual trip to Forbes Field as early as 1922.
After Penn State's big win in 1919, the next two meetings both ended in scoreless ties, as Pitt prevented dominant Penn State teams from receiving national championship recognition. Not long after Penn State's multi-year run without a loss, the school began to deemphasize football, ending the practice of awarding athletic scholarships. Higgins replaced Bezdek as coach in 1930, and the Nittany Lions went through more than a decade of struggles at less than full strength, losing to the more powerful Panthers 14 times in a row, only one of which was decided by single digits.
In the second half of Higgins' tenure, Penn State began attracting better players again, and the rivalry grew even through the 1940s and '50s, before the Nittany Lions would take over as Paterno built Penn State into the most powerful program in the East. The rivalry hit its zenith in the '70s and '80s, with Pitt's national title in '76 and Penn State's in '82.
In 1981, No. 1 Pitt raced out to a 14-0 lead behind Dan Marino, only to blow the lead 48-14 and lose a chance at the national title. It can be argued that Pitt football has never been the same since then, and Penn State mostly controlled the series after that.
The rivalry has been played only four times -- 1997-2000 -- since the final annual meeting in 1992, the year before Penn State joined the Big Ten, making it one of the first rivalries destroyed, in part, by realignment. The one positive is that the decade and a half without the rivalry has only served to fuel the fire in anticipation of its long-awaited return.
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At noon ET on Saturday at Heinz Field, one of college football's most storied rivalries will, at long last, begin writing a new chapter.
Penn State leads the all-time series 50-42-4, and while Pitt owns the most recent win -- 12-0 in 2000 at Three Rivers Stadium -- the perception is that the Nittany Lions own the rivalry. After all, they won 23 of 31 meetings after Paterno became head coach in 1966. Pitt has not finished in the AP top 10 since 1982 -- a year in which Penn State won the national championship -- while the Lions have nine top-10 finishes in that time. Penn State has an on-campus stadium with over 100,000 seats; Pitt plays in the Pittsburgh Steelers' stadium and sometimes struggles to fill more than half of it. Pitt's period of dominance in the rivalry is a distant memory reserved for the history books.
As the rivalry returns, though, the Nittany Lions and Panthers may be on relatively equal on-field footing, making Saturday's game, and the three after that, paramount for both.
Pitt has long been trying to escape from a rut of mediocrity, and after cycling through countless new coaches and five- and six-loss seasons, it believes it has the right man for the job in second-year coach Pat Narduzzi. In response, Penn State is anxious to prove that it still rules the state. James Franklin took the job before the 2014 season, promising to "dominate the state" on the recruiting trail. He inherited a scandal-ridden program dealing with harsh NCAA sanctions, and so far the results have been frustrating, with back-to-back 7-6 seasons plagued by problems on offense -- including 2015's opening loss to Temple, the first loss to the in-state Owls since 1941.
Thus, the return of the rivalry is hugely important for both sides. Pitt wants to prove that it is back on the rise and can ascend above the Nittany Lions. Penn State is trying to find a new identity and re-establish itself as a national power in the wake of scandal. To do that, reasserting itself against Pitt would be a start.
By Thanksgiving 2019, the 100th anniversary of Higgins' historic touchdown, the fourth game in this series -- also the 100th Pitt-Penn State game ever -- will have been played and a new chapter in the rivalry will have been completed.
After a decade-and-a-half break, all of the history still remains, but there is no big brother or little brother as a new era begins from scratch. The four games over the next four years won't decide conference championships, but they will be a crucial measuring stick for where the programs are headed, with much more than bragging rights at stake. It's possible that more games between the two will be scheduled in the future, but for now, four years is all the teams have to do something that has always been an important part of college football: measure yourself, and your place in the college football universe, against a rival team.
Neither team can afford to waste the opportunity to establish itself as superior. Bezdek recognized that immediately upon taking the Penn State job 98 years ago, but after initially succeeding, failures against Pitt partially led to his demise.
Nearly a century later, Narduzzi and Franklin will undoubtedly be judged in part by what happens against each other.