Pitt game carries special meaning to Blackledge

Ex-PSU QB to be honored with 1982 champs

Penn State vs. Pitt means many things to many people.

But, current players aside, it’s doubtful the game means more to anyone than it does to Todd Blackledge.

Blackledge’s legend with the Nittany Lions was solidified with his 47-yard touchdown pass to Gregg Garrity in the 1983 Sugar Bowl, which propelled Penn State to its first national championship.

That was the culmination, but his road there — enduring the growing pains of a 1980 home loss to Pitt, eventually earning the starting job in 1981 at a stocked position that included Jeff Hostetler and Frank Rocco and then emerging as the leader of the first great offense in PSU history — is what he savors.

The competition with Pitt was a big part of it.

As a junior, Blackledge helped bring the Lions back from a 14-0 deficit at No. 1 Pitt in 1981 en route to a 48-14 victory and, as a senior, he guided Penn State to a 19-10 win at Beaver Stadium to preserve a shot at the national title against Georgia.

In both years, Blackledge’s counterpart was the great Dan Marino.

“I have such strong and vivid memories of playing in this game and this rivalry,” Blackledge was saying during his drive from his home near Canton, Ohio to Penn State on Thursday afternoon. “It was as good of a rivalry game and as intense and competitive — with all the NFL talent on the field — as any game in the country.”

Blackledge has four favorite games from his Penn State career — the national championship, the blowout at Pitt, the 1982 season-shaping victory over Nebraska in which he threw the game-winning touchdown (to Kirk Bowman) in the closing seconds and his first career start at Missouri.

“Those stand out the most,” he said.

When Penn State announced it planned to recognize the 35-year anniversary of the 1982 team today, Blackledge, who has spent his entire post-playing career in broadcasting, asked his superiors at ESPN/ABC if he could work it.

“They were very gracious to assign our crew,” he said.

Blackledge, 56, has spent the last couple of days with his past teammates, including offensive tackle Bill Contz, who recently wrote a book about that era entitled, “When the Lions Roared,” a project to which Blackledge contributed passages.

“I wanted to help him promote that and take part in a couple book signings,” he said.

It was no secret that Blackledge and a number of other former Lions were disappointed when the school went outside the Penn State family for Joe Paterno’s successors in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.

Some, including Blackledge, let their frustrations affect social-media perceptions.

“At the time, I was probably thinking more along those lines (in-house choice), but things change and I think what I did or didn’t know about James (Franklin) at the time, he’s worked very hard and put together a good staff,” Blackledge said.

Blackledge is particularly impressed with offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.

“They’ve become a fun team to watch, and they have a lot of dynamic players,” he said. “What they’ve done and the growth and now (being) at full scholarship levels and the recruiting is solid — from afar, I’ve been very impressed.”

This is Blackledge’s first opportunity to call a game at Beaver Stadium since the 2014 Ohio State game in which Penn State’s gallant effort fell short in overtime.

“(Progress) has been very impressive,” he said. “At the end of last year, I thought they were playing at as a high a level of anybody I had seen last year. Unfortunately, USC was, too.”

Blackledge watched the Rose Bowl from the Penn State sidelines and while he hasn’t forged much of a relationship with Franklin, he said, “It was great to see not only Penn State play so well and really fight and compete, but just to see the fan base and the Penn State Nation feel really good about their football team and being part of Penn State.

“I think James has maintained a lot of the traditions of people who played here. The kids play really hard, and I think they represent Penn State in a very positive way. As a former player, that is very important.”