Mills, Palko happy to see PSU-Pitt return

Zack Mills and Tyler Palko didn’t get to enjoy playing in a Penn State vs. Pitt matchup, but the record-setting quarterbacks understand very well how much the rivalry means to people on both sides.

“The game should have never been taken off the calendar,” Palko said during the Curve’s Pitt vs. PSU night Thursday. “I don’t care who the head coach is, who the athletic director is, who the players are. They should be able to play in a parking lot with no coaches, as far as I’m concerned.”

“Being from Maryland, I was kind of out of the loop on how intense that rivalry was,” Mills said. “My redshirt year was the least year that they played in 2000, and I was shocked at how much of a rivalry it was. It’s awesome to see it come back.”

Mills was the Nittany Lions’ quarterback from 2001-04, establishing several program records, while Palko piled up some of the higher-ranking passing stats in Pitt history from 2002-06.

Unfortunately, neither one of them likes to do much trash talking about the rivalry, especially Palko, who has bragging rights since Pitt has won the last two meetings (2016, 2000).

“I’m not a good trash talker, so I just keep my mouth shut and have a little smile,” Palko said.

The Panthers posted what turned out to be an enormous win over PSU last season, 42-39, in week two at Heinz Field. That game ultimately kept the Lions out of the College Football Playoff since they had two regular-season losses (also at Michigan).

Still, Palko wouldn’t bite on talking smack about that Pitt win.

“To beat Penn State and then the eventual national champion in Clemson was really good for our program,” he said, “and I just hope we can get to where Penn State’s at right now.”

Where PSU is at right now is ranked No. 6 in preseason polls, with hopes of winning a second straight Big Ten title and earning a berth in the playoff.

Mills said he takes “tremendous pride” in what his alma mater accomplished last season, shocking college football with the unexpected success.

“Every Saturday, I was so excited as the year went on to watch those guys play,” Mills said.

“It was an amazing run, and after what those kids have gone through the last couple years and the transition to Coach (James) Franklin and coming off the sanctions and to start the season 2-2 and to rattle off all those wins at the end, you could feel the momentum growing and growing.”

Mills, like everyone else, is excited to see what star running back Saquon Barkley can do this season.

“Before he’s even played this season, he’s up there with (PSU’s greatest running backs) easily, and he could be the best of them all,” Mills said.

One of the best seasons ever by a Lion running back came in 2002, when Larry Johnson ran for more than 2,000 yards. The quarterback who was turning around handing Johnson the ball was none other than Mills.

“(Saquon is) a little bit more of a shifty back than Larry was, but he has that same power, so he has both skill sets, which I think is phenomenal,” Mills said.

Mills also offered up high praise for PSU quarterback Trace McSorley, who had a stellar 2016 season running Joe Moorhead’s potent offense.

“I think he’s a great player,” Mills said. “He’s a dynamic player, he can do a lot of things, and he makes plays.

“I love what they’re doing up there,” Mills said of the offense. “Trace, the thing I like about him, he’s got a lot on his shoulders running that offense, but he always keeps a calm demeanor out on the field. He never lets anything bother him and kind of rolls with the punches. I think you need that at that position, especially in that offense where you’re snapping the ball super quick and going to the next play.”

One thing many people have pointed out is that, after sneaking up on a lot of teams last year, Penn State is now the hunted instead of the hunters.

“Expectations are high, and I’m sure they have a target on their back in the Big Ten,” Mills said. “But I think they’re up for the challenge. They have a lot of guys back, they gained a lot of experience, they have a lot of key home games, and if you look across their schedule, one big road game (at Ohio State).”

Palko didn’t get too specific about looking ahead to Pitt’s season, but he did show support for what coach Pat Narduzzi is building.

“I know one thing about Coach Narduzzi: He’s a tough guy, and he expects his team and his players to be tough,” Palko said.

Mills is excited to see the Sept. 9 matchup when the PSU-Pitt rivalry heads to Beaver Stadium.

“We lost (last year), so it wasn’t the greatest feeling in the world,” Mills said. “Just to see the guys go out there and hear about how intense the Pitt fans were, how intense the Penn State fans were, and to hear the older guys when they came and to talk about that experience, it was pretty cool and something that you wish you could be a part of.

“I’m sure last year they got a big taste of it, just how intense that is, and I’m looking forward to seeing it in front of a home crowd of 110,000 fans.”

Mills’ pick for the game?

“I’ve got to go Penn State,” he said. “It’s a revenge game from last year. It was 42-39 last year. (I’ll say) 42-34.”

“I hope we can score 34 points,” Palko said of the Panthers.

“I’m hoping Pitt, and just by one point.”