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With Nebraska Added, Will Penn State Fans Finally Embrace the Big Ten?

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With Nebraska Added, Will Penn State Fans Finally Embrace the Big Ten?

It’s been two decades since Penn State joined the Big Ten. Yet there are times when I have a sense that many Penn State fans long for the days when we weren’t so completely tied to Big Ten conference opponents and dynamics. I have the impression that many Penn State football fans haven’t yet totally embraced the entire Big Ten. Or they believe that Penn State should have joined the Big East or possibly the ACC. 

This instinct comes through especially as I read people argue about which division Penn State belongs to in the future Big Ten. Some of the comments, for example, on Bleacher Report discussions about Penn State are vehement about Penn State being an Eastern team. Some people can’t imagine Penn State in a different division than Michigan or Ohio State, as if they are the only competition that matters. 

I am hoping that with Nebraska joining the Big Ten, Penn State fans, especially if they wind up in the same division as Nebraska, will finally come around to embracing the Big Ten in its entirety.

There is also a part of the fan base that longs for our days as an independent, or as a dominant force in eastern football. And of course, there is a significant portion of the fan base that bemoans the loss of Pittsburgh as an annual rivalry.

Some of this longing is very legitimate. While personally I didn’t care much for the Pittsburgh rivalry, I respect the notion that we lost something very important there. I even argued recently that Pittsburgh would be an excellent addition to the Big Ten. 

There was just a huge history and tradition of a backyard brawl for the best team in Pennsylvania that has been impossible to replace by any current Big Ten team. Playing Temple on a non-conference basis each year doesn’t quite compare, even if they are improving competitively.

A legitimate concern is the problem of the Big Ten being mostly a Midwest conference. It’s been more difficult—and more expensive—for Penn State fans in Pennsylvania, New York or New Jersey to get to away games than it used to be. More than 50 percent of all Penn State alumni live in that tri-state area. 

When we were Independents, eastern Penn State fans could drive to many away games, some of which were closer to them than Beaver Stadium: Syracuse, Maryland, Boston College, Rutgers, and Notre Dame were all within driving distance from the tri-state area, and Penn State fans would follow their team in droves to those games. 

When we played outside of the Northeast, the away trips were varied each year. One year it might be a trip to Notre Dame, another year it might be the University of Texas. Alabama. Brigham Young. USC. Boston College. Miami. It was fun and interesting and each year brought something new. Some of those trips were also expensive, but we didn’t seem to mind too much. Variety was the spice of life for Penn State fans when we were independent.

Conference play has been different. We play the same set of 10 teams year after year, with only two teams rotating off our schedule, then back on. We travel to the same away game venues over and over again. Quite frankly, the travel isn’t quite as exciting as it once was. There are few if any new venues or cities to explore.

My sense is that some fans are getting bored with this routine.  It doesn’t help that our non-conference schedule, with only a few notable exceptions, has been less than thrilling due to Penn State’s desire to have a seventh or even an eighth home game each season. This has prevented most potentially competitive non-conference home and away series. It also has prevented Penn State from scheduling Pitt as a regular non-conference game (although I suspect the reasons may run deeper).

I’ve had several discussions with people who are regular away game travelers who have told me that now that they’ve seen all the Big Ten venues, they’re cutting back on away games. The travel expense is such that they are only going to one or two games per year and staying away from other Big Ten away games. 

Consistently, the most popular away games are Ohio State and Michigan—both within driving distance of central PA. These are the teams that Penn State fans consider to be our biggest Big Ten rivals. 

Unfortunately there is no way that Ohio State or Michigan will consider Penn State to be their most important rival. They have each other, and some historians attribute the animosity between these two teams to an historic land dispute that occurred between Ohio and Michigan over an area of land called the Toledo Strip, which escalated into a battle of sorts between militia troops known as the Toledo War that occurred in 1835. 

Penn State can’t buck that history (pardon the pun). Ohio State and Michigan have held this football rivalry since 1897, over 100 years. Michigan has won 57 of those games.  Ohio State has won 44 of those games. There have been 6 ties. (Source: Ohio State University Archives). It is considered by many people to be the greatest rivalry in college football.

A Penn State-Ohio State rivalry or a Penn State-Michigan rivalry will always be less of a rivalry than Michigan-Ohio State. It doesn’t diminish the importance of the games. They will always be important to each team. 

But they will never have the same quality of intense, often insane, animosity towards one another. In other words, these games will never replace Penn State-Pittsburgh. 

The “hot” away tickets are always the non-conference games, ones that Penn State fans haven’t visited for a while. This year, Alabama is the hottest. In 2006, it was Notre Dame. In 2003, it was Nebraska.

Even the trip to Michigan last year wasn’t in high demand. Due to lack of interest, Centre for Travel was forced to cancel a round trip bus tour including tickets planned from State College to Ann Arbor. The economy may have had something to do with that as well. We were told that regular fans were choosing to forgo Michigan in order to save their money for Alabama.

At home, the games where the student section shows up on time are always Ohio State and Michigan. Iowa generates excitement and intensity, because they have frustrated us over the last several times we played them by winning. Wisconsin is also usually a big game at home, because it’s always considered to be a competitive threat. Students also are early for any evening game where a “White House” has been declared. Otherwise we’re lucky if the student section fills up by half time at any game.

Michigan State was intended to be Penn State’s new rival, competing for a somewhat esoteric trophy called the “Land Grant Trophy”, in recognition of the fact that Michigan State and Penn State were the first two land-grant institutions in the United States, both established in 1855. 

Most Penn State fans are less than excited about this annual end of season game. If you look at the history of games between us since we joined the Big Ten, Penn State has won 14 times, Michigan State four times.  Seven of those games were decided by seven points or less. Some other games were closer than the final score. 

If you take a longer perspective, the wins and losses have been more even. 

But the rivalry intensity is lacking.

The only time that Michigan State becomes a “big” game of the season is if the Big Ten championship or another desirable bowl bid is decided at the game. Other than that, Penn State fans don’t care about the rivalry much. 

Overall, if we play Indiana, Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota, or Northwestern at home, the reaction is usually “ho-hum”, that is, lackluster, and the attendance at games follow that reaction: a late arriving student section, an early exiting crowd if we’re winning.   

These teams haven’t always been the most competitive teams against Penn State, although once in a while they can and will surprise Penn State and win a big one, sometimes when it’s least expected.

My own view is you can never count out any Big Ten team on any given Saturday, but some fans do not see it this way.

This year, Penn State and Indiana are playing an Indiana “home game” at FedEx Field in Washington, D.C. Even though this is within driving distance, and gives fans a chance to see a Penn State game in a brand new NFL football stadium, tickets are still available through the Penn State website.   

It’s more convenient than flying to Indianapolis and then driving to Bloomington, considerably less expensive, and it’s always fun to experience a new stadium. 

Heck, it’s also an NFL stadium and beer will likely be available during the game! 

Why then is the Penn State section of this game having a hard time selling out? It could be the time of year— mid-November—or maybe it’s the perception that the competition is lackluster, not worth traveling for. 

Seems to me that Penn State fans used to follow Penn State wherever they played. Now they are getting awfully fussy about where and when they will watch Penn State play in the Big Ten, especially when every game is on TV.

So what does Nebraska bring to Penn State, and will Penn State fans’ attitudes change toward the Big Ten as a result of their joining? 

First, Nebraska brings a history of some competitive battles and controversy that bode well for a new rivalry. What about the extra bit of turf on the sidelines at Beaver Stadium that led to an errant pass completion call and then Penn State’s game-winning touchdown in 1982? Or the denial of Penn State’s national championship in 1994 when Nebraska was declared No. 1 over an equally great and undefeated Penn State?

There have been passionate and heated arguments already in favor of one team or the other. We have played Nebraska 13 times. The series stands at 7-6. 

Second, Nebraska brings strong competition to the Big Ten. It is a team that Penn State fans can get excited about in an annual battle, both when they visit Happy Valley and when we travel there. 

Third, it is a game that will often have national ranking implications. Nebraska and Penn State are often both ranked in the BCS Top 25. It is a game that will always attract a national TV audience. It will certainly be a game that will have Big Ten championship implications.

And finally, it is the ONLY team on the horizon in the Big Ten that I see has a chance to finally lessen the cries (and some of the pain) of the “bring back Pitt” crowd. 

Penn State, still a relative “newbie” to longstanding Big Ten rivalries, clearly needs a stronger rivalry than Michigan State. 

Nebraska, as the newest “newbie” to the Big Ten, also needs a strong rivalry, and an annual end-of-season battle between Penn State and Nebraska has the chance to be the most exciting new rivalry in the Big Ten. Nevermind how cold it is on Thanksgiving weekend in either location. People will be there.

But Lincoln, Nebraska is so far away, people will argue. People will not travel there. Not true. Lincoln is close to Omaha. One of the most live-able cities in the United States, Omaha has lots to see and do.

It’s probably less expensive to fly there than it is to some other Big Ten destinations that are geographically closer, like Champaign or East Lansing. Geography doesn’t necessarily determine airfare rates. Competition among airline carriers serving a city does. There may also be more frequent connections to Omaha, making travel time differences inconsequential.

Plus, one thing that eastern Penn State fans forget is that Penn State alumni live all over the Midwest. Penn State tickets at any Big Ten stadium will be sold to Penn State alumni who currently live closer to other Big Ten teams than they do to Beaver Stadium. Those alumni will be thrilled that the football team is traveling west.

All you need to do is go to the Penn State Alumni Association website and click on the alumni map to see how many Penn State alumni live within driving distance of Big Ten schools. 

Alumni chapters often organize bus trips today to go to any away venue, and that will continue and perhaps get more intense once Nebraska is a factor. Bordering state Colorado, for example, has a substantial number of Penn State alums living there. 

The football atmosphere at Nebraska is one of the best in the country. The fans pride themselves on being the friendliest fans in college football, so I expect that they will respect Penn State fans and treat us well. At least, that was my experience in 2003. They have a tailgating atmosphere and spirit that rivals that of Beaver Stadium. 

Penn State fans are also known to be quite friendly toward opposing team fans, and so Nebraska fans should be welcome at Happy Valley as well.

I’m not one who supports the idea of hating each other to have a good rivalry, and I think that a Penn State-Nebraska annual contest will have all the positive aspects of an excellent rivalry with few if any negatives. At least I hope so.

As for some of the divisions being proposed that put Penn State in a “western” division with teams like Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota?

I say bring it on! From my perspective as a traveler to every Big Ten game, two of my favorite away game venues are Wisconsin and Iowa. On my list of favorite Big Ten venues, Wisconsin beats Ohio State and Michigan. Madison is a fun city.

Iowa is also up there on my list as a great football atmosphere, and has had quite a rivalry with Penn State in its own right, as one of the Big Ten’s best coaches, Kirk Ferentz, consistently seems to know how to out-coach Joe Paterno.  

In fact, it was our first Big Ten away game—at Iowa in 1993—that convinced me that the Big Ten was going to be fun and exciting, and it has remained so for me ever since.

Personally, I can get more excited about visiting Lincoln, Madison and Iowa City every two years than I can about Columbus and Ann Arbor, although those venues are top-notch as well.

We already rotate Michigan off our schedule once in a while and I expect that will continue. It would be ideal if Ohio State can be retained as an annual contest, due to travel issues and the fact that they share a border with us. It would be nice to drive to a game once in a while and avoid the Detroit airport! We don’t have to be in the same division to have an annual contest with them.

Michigan State is also an excellent football atmosphere, and my guess is that the Land Grant Trophy will still exist, but if it’s not scheduled each year, I don’t think anyone will care much. We have another trophy game with Minnesota for the Governor’s Victory Bell, and that’s not played every year.

What I want more than anything right now is an annual end-of-year battle with Nebraska, finally a good rivalry that has the chance to be historically significant into the future, that won’t play second fiddle to Ohio State-Michigan.

As for other Midwest teams? Indianapolis (Purdue or Indiana), Minneapolis (Minnesota) and Chicago (Northwestern) are great cities to visit, making those away games always a reason to go and enjoy the trips regardless of how competitive the games are. 

Despite several trips, I’ve never developed a feel for Champaign as a city, but the Illinois football atmosphere is pretty good, especially now that the stadium renovation is complete.   

But name a stadium in the Big Ten—any stadium—and I will point to a not-to-be-missed game over the last two decades.   

I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the come from behind win at Illinois in 1994, “The Drive” led by Kerry Collins, which turned out to be the defining moment of that undefeated season.   

Or the Indiana game in 2004 where Penn State finally won an away game after a very long drought of away game losses and a losing season, setting us up for the incredible turnaround in 2005.  The team reaction at the end of that game was priceless. It was as if they had won a national championship.

And speaking of 2005, what about Northwestern that year, when Michael Robinson completed a fourth and 15 pass to Isaac Smolko to keep a final drive alive and pull out a victory? That was the key play of the 2005 season, making it possible to eventually be one second away from an undefeated season. 

That’s what’s so great about the Big Ten. There are great memories that can be created at any of the venues, defining moments that make or break a season. And we can never quite predict ahead of time where or when those moments will be.

There’s a lot to discover in the Midwest and at all the Big Ten atmospheres, and Penn State fans who continue to hold on to the idea that we should be the  “Beast of the East” after 20 years of not being so need to understand that Penn State long ago placed its future in a Midwestern based conference, not an Eastern based conference. And it’s worked out well for Penn State, not only in football, but also in other sports.

Most importantly, we continue to be a program of national scope where playing the best competition we can is more important than geography.

Mostly what I want for Penn State is the most competitive schedule we can possibly get, year in and year out, one that balances the historically “weaker” teams with the historically “stronger” teams within each division. A division that gives all teams a fair shot at winning a Big Ten Championship, and which gives us a real shot at a strong and intense rivalry game. 

I would like to see competition that furthers our status as a national program, in an exciting conference where we have to win not only a division but also a Big Ten championship in order to be a contender for a National Championship.

The Big Ten expansion to 12 teams with Nebraska in the same division as us brings that to us. It is a significant change, and it’s exciting to think about what might happen.

Welcome to the Big Ten, Huskers! We look forward to playing you often, and hopefully we will enjoy a great new annual rivalry that will end the season and create new defining moments for both teams. 

We hope that you will agree that Penn State is the best new rivalry for you as well.

 

Photo: Penn State "White House" by Carolyn M. Todd

This article can also be viewed at View from the Stands - Penn State Football

 

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