Big Ten Countdown: 94 - Penn State and Nebraska

Trophy Case. Courtesy of www.flickr.com http://www.flickr.com/photos/rlevans/2472875521/

Today is Day 94 of our countdown.  You can view the greatest team ever here.

 

There are going to be a lot of Husker fans that won't like this story. They will read it and say, "Never gonna happen","That's stupid","You suck and/or are a dumb*** Aaron". Well, I think we have a chance to do something really cool with our new protected rival. Reading news clips and blogs about Penn State,you get the distinct feeling that they still feel like the bastard child of the conference. They feel like they really don't belong and that they have never had a place in the Big Ten. A once proud national independent has been relegated to 2nd tier status in their new conference. After 17 years, they still feel like they are the new kid that no one likes. Well Husker fans, you need to get one thing straight. Mighty Penn State joined the Big Ten and after 17 years, it's still the UM-OSU conference. Nebraska could very well end up like Penn State and be 2nd tier in this conference. And while that might be ok, that's not what many of you want.

 

Michigan-Ohio State is a very popular regional rivalry. It's one of the great rivalry games in this country. But... While it's big in the Big Ten, fans of schools outside of Big Ten country don't really care about this game. This is typical for regional rivalries, though. Most of us don't care about USC-UCLA or Florida-Florida State. We may watch them, especially when they are important, but we're not going to go ape over them. Growing up as a Husker fan, I payed attention to UM-OSU if it had national title implications. But if it didn't, I really didn't care about it. Now to be fair, only recently has this game not been a part of the national title picture and I will care about it more now that Nebraska is a member of the Big Ten.

 

Our protected rivalry with Penn State has a chance to be something special. While UM and OSU battle for gold pants, Penn State and Nebraska need to take this opportunity to establish their game against each other as a true and legitimate equal to the UM-OSU game. It doesn't need to be bigger or better it needs to be comparable. Having a second marquee game in the Big Ten is good for the conference as a whole and Nebraska needs a big national game. Iowa will be fun to play every year, but it probably will never be a great national rivalry. Though it's not yet, Penn State and Nebraska can be a great game. It can be East Coast vs Great Plains/Midwest. It can be a USC-Notre Dame type game.

 

I like magic. When you go to the movies or read a book, you get to imagine new things. They make you think and dream. A space-aged fantasy or a sword wielding medieval army. A love story trying to get two people together. A conspiracy or a thriller with a plot twist at the end that you would have never expected. Raise your hand if you've every wanted to be a Jedi. Making something special and unique creates a little bit of magic. My brother, father, cousin and I use to play cards with my grandfather. For 20 years we did this and when he died, that was gone. We didn't want to forget it, so we took the deck that we played with and split it four ways. Each of us took a suit with us as a keepsake. When we get together for the holidays we bring the deck back together and play. It's special to us. It's magic. It's something that only the four of us are apart of. Nebraska and Penn State have something in common too. We have a chance to create some magic and a special bond. We can give Penn State something they’ve been missing since they joined the Big Ten and lost Pitt and maybe we can use it to help forget about Oklahoma. It's something that no one can take away from either of us. And thus, we come to day 94 of our countdown. Penn State-Nebraska. The 19(94) controversy.

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It was a cool November Saturday. The sun was shining and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. However, the breeze from the northwest sent a chill that reminded everyone that winter was just around the corner. You could hear the remaining leaves rustle in the trees. The ones that had fallen were scraping against the pavement.

 

I had never been to State College, Pennsylvania before. Hell, I'd never been to Pennsylvania period.  The furthest north and east I had ever traveled in the states was Detroit and that was years ago. I only stayed there for about 6 hours for a rock concert, but that's another story.  It was a beautiful town with a college atmosphere. Autumn was in full swing and there were smells of barbeque mixed in with the leaves and crisp air. There was excitement, anticipation, and eagerness among the people here. Nebraska football was in town and I had come to follow the Big Red.

 

Penn State's campus was huge. My brother, my buddy (a Penn State grad) and I walked around it for awhile. There were plenty of people in all white. Most of them were friendly. Some gave us questioning looks. A few were hard asses and didn't acknowledge us and then there were also a few taunts directed our way. This was a big game for them. They were still in the race for the first Leaders division title. They had only lost to Alabama and they had even gotten over their Iowa hump. It was also their Senior Day. But the icing on the cake was the chance to beat Nebraska. A lot of Nittnay Lion fans were still were sore about 1994. The younger ones were told to be mad at us.  I laughed at this, but it did make me realize that they still respected the short history between the two schools.  They still felt like the Cornhuskers had taken something from them and exacting a little revenge was on their minds.

 

My buddy had a group of friends outside the stadium, so we headed over there. They were cool people. His parents were there with some of their friends. They gave us a little flack about 1994 and 2002, but we smiled, dealt with it, ate their food, and drank their beer. All-in-all, the pregame experience was pretty cool, but we were itchin' to get over to the stadium.

 

The stadium was electric 20 minutes before kickoff. The band was playing and the crowd was in it. But it was what happened after the band left the field that things got interesting. The big screen at Beaver Stadium lit up with Joe Paterno in the locker room firing up his team. And then, there it was. At the end of his speech, the camera panned out and behind him you could see it. It was a National Championship trophy, but not just any trophy.  It was Nebraska's 1994 Trophy. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Coach Paterno finished up his speech/pep rally by saying, "Today, we play for this. Nebraska has agreed to make a copy of the base of this trophy so that each school will have one. But there will be only one crystal football. The team that wins this game and every game we play in the future, earns the crystal football." At this point, Beaver Stadium just erupted. I had never been in a stadium as loud as this. It was amazing. "Are we really doing this?", I thought. That's OUR trophy. Why would we put it on the line like this? It doesn't make any sense why we would do this.  If we wanted to do something like this, why don't we just make a copy of the entire trophy?

 

The teams each came out of the locker rooms and shortly thereafter, so did the trophies. Penn State had their crystal-less trophy that was wheeled behind their bench. Nebraska brought out their 1994 trophy, crystal-and-all and placed it behind their bench. As the crowd roared during the kickoff, I took a moment to just soak all of this in. This was a big moment and I was hear to witness it. It felt like the super bowl. Cameras were flashing everywhere. The stadium was completely white expect for a small patch of red in the upper deck and a few blotches of red here and there. Husker Nation may have traveled, but not many got inside.

 

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Beaver Stadium. http://www.flickr.com/photos/47342665@N04/4574890277/

 

Nebraska had come into the game as 3-point favorites. Bo Pelini had changed up his offense over the off season to an up-tempo no-huddle attack much similar to Oregon and Oklahoma. They had their own wrinkle, though. The Huskers had a new formation they named "the deuce". This involved 2 QB's on the field behind the line of scrimmage. It got this name because, legend has it, when Tim Beck unveiled the formation against Ohio State, OSU defensive coordinator Jim Heacock replied, "Wait... What the deuce!?"  They would stand in the shotgun next to each other. In their hurry-up, Nebraska could see how the opposing defense set up and keep both QB's back or shift one to another part of the field. When they both stayed behind the line of scrimmage, you never knew who the snap was going to. This had given opposing teams fits so far this year. The Huskers were averaging 41.2 points per game. The defense, as had become the norm during the Pelini era, was making the Blackshrit tradition live up to its standards. The Huskers were 8-1 at this point in their first trip through the Big 10, while Penn State was putting together a very nice season also at 8-1.

 

The first quarter went well for the Huskers. They took the opening kickoff 80-yards in 5:34 for the games first score. A 20-yard TD pass from Bubba Starling to Taylor Martinez out of "the deuce" resulted in the first points. Penn State went 3-and-out on their first possession.  Nebraska drove down the field and scored on a 42-yard field goal by freshman Mauro Bondi on their next series. Up 10-0, things were looking good. Penn State moved the ball a little better on their second possession, though. They were trying to establish the run and were able to move the chains a couple times before they were forced to punt. With the quarter winding down, Nebraska regained possession only to have T-Magic cough it up at the Huskers 12-yard line. Penn State capitalized and pounded the ball into the end zone early in the second quarter to cut the lead to 3.

 

The rest of the second quarter saw both defenses lock down and the only points scored happened when Jamal Turner returned a punt for a touchdown near the end of the half.  The third quarter had two field goals from Penn State and at the start of the fourth, it was 17-13 Nebraska.  After a Penn State punt pinned Nebraska at the 2 yard line, things started getting interesting.   On second down, State DE Jack Crawford tackles Nebraska I-Back Aaron Green in the endzone for 2 points and the score becomes 17-15 Nebraska.  Time and again, Nebraska just couldn't put points on the board.  Bondi seemed to be rattled a little with the large crowd and missed an opportunity in both the third and fourth quarter.  With time running out on the game, Penn State had one last chance at victory.  They had driven the ball down to the Nebraska 37-yard line and were in position to kick a field goal with under ten seconds left.  As the kick went up, it missed wide right.  Nebraska had appeared to have held on, but there was a flag on the field.  Neutral Zone infraction on the Huskers and Penn State had one last shot.

This time it went through.  And there it was. The final gun went off when the clock hit :00 and we had lost 18-17. Players along PSU's sidelines were jumping up and down and running onto the field. Joe Paterno was headed towards mid-field as was Pelini. Bo had grabbed the crystal football and after shaking Paterno's hand and congratulating him, he handed it over to Joe Pa. Penn State players lifted him up and carried him across the field while he held up the crystal for all to see. It was both a great and terrible moment for me. This could very well be Paterno's last home game. How many times before had he walked off the field at Beaver Stadium a winner, but now he was carrying a championship trophy with him. After 50 years, was this his walk into the sunset? The moment must have been overwhelming for him. It definitely seemed that way for the crowd. There were people smiling and cheering and clapping and snapping pictures and hugging and crying and jumping up and down.

 

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Joe Paterno, victorious. http://www.flickr.com/photos/jckahn/5281073489/

 

At first I was mad. "What the hell. That's OUR trophy. We EARNED it. The writers and the coaches voted for us. They thought we were the best and so we got it. Besides...1982. They owed us for that. 1994 was payback." But my Penn State buddy stopped me.

 

"You don't get it do you. You know what? We think that's OUR trophy. We think WE earned it. The writers and the coaches screwed us. 1982? Our teams PLAYED each other that year. Yea, there was a questionable call, but QUESTIONABLE CALLS HAPPEN. It's part of the game and you have to deal with them.  They happen to all teams. From what I can remember, a questionable call in Columbia, Missouri, in 1997 preserved your title.  Penn State did everything they were suppose to in 1994 and they didn't even get a share of the title. We would have shared it. We just wanted to be recognized for our accomplishment, but we were just an after thought. How would you feel if 1994 Nebraska was an after thought?"

 

Sensing I was about to deck him, he continued on, "This means the world to us! You have no idea how cool it is that Nebraska was willing to do this! Your school just created one of the coolest rivalries in the country. Think about it. What kind of school/team/person would do this? That took balls dude. It's something that everyone else can respect about you and Nebraska. You treated us as an equal. You showed us that even though you won that title in 1994 and that the history books will always show that you won that title, you acknowledge that we did everything right too. It wasn't Nebraska's fault that there wasn't a split champion, but Nebraska did what they could to ease the hearts of Penn State fans. Hell, for the first time in the past 18 years, I feel like we actually belong here. The Big Ten feels right now. We have a true rival and we play for something that MEANS something to us; to both of us. We have a rivalry trophy now that we care about! A LOT!  Recruits will love to play for that crystal football and a chance to hold it up in the air every year. It will forever link these two schools and these two fanbases and what Nebraska did here today will always be remember by PSU fans. For 364 days a year, you'll be treated as family. Thanks man."

 

I replied simply, "Why couldn't the trophy between our two teams be a copy of the '94 trophy?"

 

"Because," he said, "it wouldn't be the same."

 

I sat there and thought about it. If Penn State had won that trophy in 1994, I would have been pretty ticked too. It wouldn't have been their fault, but I probably would have blamed them as they had blamed us all these years. It sucks that we lost that crystal football.  You know what, though? We can win it back next year. We can hold it up in the air too and enjoy the moment when we bring it back to Lincoln where it rightfully belongs. Because everyone knows that '94 Nebraska would have beaten '94 Penn State...

 

Tomorrow:  The Dangers of Forcing a Rivalry

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