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Fans, former players embracing Pitt-Penn State renewal

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Narduzzi, Pittsburgh getting ready for Penn State (2:44)

Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi joins SportsCenter to explain the significance of his team's upcoming matchup against Penn State. (2:44)

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Former Penn State receiver Gregg Garrity Sr., a Pittsburgh native, has waited impatiently for this weekend for more than a decade.

It’s been 16 years since the historic Pitt-Penn State rivalry was last played, the longest gap in series history, but a four-year home-and-home agreement finally picks up at noon Saturday on Heinz Field. Garrity plans to be in the stands. Actually, he’s been planning that since 2011 when the series was first announced.

“Finally,” said Garrity, whose son -- also named Gregg -- is a reserve receiver for Penn State. “I’ve been waiting for this since the last game, back in 2000. This game’s going to be a lot of fun; I know a lot of people circled this right when they announced it.”

The current Nittany Lions have tried to downplay Saturday’s meeting, saying it’s just like any other. Most were only toddlers the last time the two played, after all. But, for the alumni and past lettermen who were a part of this, there’s no pretending this is anything other than a hugely anticipated rivalry.

Pitt athletic director Scott Barnes said earlier this week that he expects a crowd of about 70,000, which could make this the largest-ever crowd for a Pittsburgh sporting event. Some Penn State fans even went so far as to purchase Pitt season tickets to secure their seats. And tickets on StubHub are now starting at $140, making them the second-hottest tickets of the weekend behind Virginia Tech-Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“It’s almost a crime that it doesn’t get played every year, to be blunt,” said former Penn State defensive lineman Greg Gattuso, who now coaches FCS Albany. “It’s as good as any rivalry in the country, and it’s a shame the people in charge cannot get this to work. I feel very strong about that. It just breaks my heart.”

These two teams, and their fan bases, have had their hate simmer for more than a century. In 1896, Penn State athletic trainer George Hoskins took his services to Pitt and fights broke out on the field during the second-ever meeting. In some ways, the two programs never really moved on. During the Golden Age of the series, during the 1970s and '80s, there might have been a begrudging respect -- but, for the in-state players, a loss routinely made it harder to head home that offseason.

Even now, the two programs have routinely traded pot-shots. On the day he was introduced as Penn State’s head coach, James Franklin vowed that he would “dominate the state” in recruiting. Last season, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi took a veiled shot at how the PSU staff hindered the development of Christian Hackenberg.

The fan bases have been a lot less subtle. Within the past month, one Pitt-based blog attempted to sell “Joe Knew” T-shirts before cancelling the orders due to the backlash. And Penn State’s online student publication, Onward State, penned a column this week on how Pitt is “simply not good enough” to be Penn State’s rival.

So, sure, the rivalry might’ve lost something over the years. But it still means an awful lot to many others.

“It was such a tradition, and I’m big into tradition,” said former Penn State offensive lineman Mike Munchak, who now serves as an assistant coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. “I hope it’s something that’s back to stay. I think it’s great for the state, I think it’s great for both programs, and I think it’s important for them to keep doing that.”

Added former player and assistant coach Tom Bradley: “It’s a great rivalry, and I’m proud they’re playing each other again.”

The game may not mean as much to current players, but there’s still an unmistakable excitement in Happy Valley this week. It’s why student fans organized a Twitter movement to “White Out” Heinz Field, and why others stood in line for more than 18 hours for tickets.

Garrity first learned of this game back in 2011, when his son was just a high school junior at Wexford (Pa.) North Allegheny. Now his son is getting ready to suit up just like his father did 35 years ago. It’s a different time, with less on the line, but bragging rights still mean something for the two schools separated by a two-and-a-half-hour drive.

And that’s not just for the former players or their children. It’s for the alumni as a whole, and much of the fan bases. It’s for the state of Pennsylvania.

“To be honest with you, I never understood why it stopped,” Garrity said. “But, with the alumni and everybody, it’s getting them pretty excited. I was at the last game, and I can’t wait.”