A Game Like No Other

11 Nov

The University of Nebraska has been playing intercollegiate football since 1890, competing in over 1,230 games against 140 different opponents.  On Saturday, Nebraska is playing a football game against Pennsylvania State University in State College, PA.  Kickoff is at 11 am CT, and the game will be televised by ESPN.

A little more than a week ago, this was a basic, run of the mill game.  Two Top 25 teams facing off in a Big 10 conference game with implications on both division races.  It was definitely not the biggest game of the day, and would not have received a lot of national coverage aside from the obligatory 30 second highlight package. 

Not too long ago in terms of hours and days.  Yet with everything that has occurred at Penn State within the last week, this game will be anything but ordinary.  It will be a game like no other.

*  *  *

Before I get too much farther, I feel compelled to note a couple of key items.  I’m going to focus on the football game itself.  While that may seem somewhat shallow and insensitive in light of the horrifying allegations, it is important to note that:

A) There have been thousands of articles and opinion pieces written condemning the horrible acts of Jerry Sandusky, as well as the puzzling inaction of PSU officials.  Despite my strong feelings on the subject, I simply do not have anything to say on the subject which has not been said dozens of times already. 
B) By choosing to focus on the game, I am in no way shape or form attempting to diffuse focus from the scandal, nor am I trying to gloss over the unimaginable pain felt by the victims and their families. 
C)  I’m going to write about Joe Paterno, legendary Hall of Fame coach.  I do not plan to address the person who, when confronted with disturbing allegations regarding a top assistant and close friend, apparently did the absolute bare minimum (with “bare minimum” looking more and more like a best case scenario).  I realize for some that distinction is a hair which cannot be split – JoePa will forever be defined by both roles – but I’m not comfortable condemning the man until more facts are known about his actions and motivations.
D) I enjoy writing about Nebraska football.  When people face troubling circumstances (such as reading the Jerry Sandusky grand jury indictment) they often retreat into things that give them comfort and enjoyment.  Plus, as I allude to above, this game is unprecedented in Nebraska history.

*  *  *

When has a Nebraska game ever been surrounded by so much controversy, drama, and national attention?  In their storied history, Nebraska has been involved in some controversial games, notably: 

  • 1963 against Oklahoma, a day after President Kennedy was assassinated.  There were serious discussions on if it was appropriate to play so soon. 
  • 1995 against Iowa State, when Lawrence Phillips returned from suspension.  The national fervor against Tom Osborne’s program was at an all time high. 
  • The 2002 Rose Bowl against Miami, when Nebraska snuck into the BCS Championship through a combination of computer polls, late season upsets, and decimal points. 

Other games became controversial because of things that happened during or after the game, or because of calls made or not made.  But Nebraska has never been in a game shrouded with the level of controversy they will see on Saturday.

*  *  *

Should the game even be played?  There have been calls for Penn State to forfeit the game or for Nebraska to boycott it.  Neither should happen. 

None of the current Penn State players were coached by Sandusky, and you can practically guarantee that none of those players knew of the dark secrets that Paterno, Mike McQueary, and other PSU officials were hiding.  Nor would forfeiting the game do anything to help the victims or promote healing on the PSU campus.  It is simply not the team’s fault, and they should not be punished for the actions of this monster and the inactions of the PSU administrators.

I have seen rumors of a PSU player boycott over Paterno’s firing.  While I seriously doubt anything will come of the rumor, it would be a shame for players to give up an opportunity to compete, especially in support of a firing that is pretty widely supported.

Nebraska also should play this game.  First and foremost, as Athletics Director Tom Osborne pointed out, NU has contractual obligations to PSU, the Big Ten Conference, and ABC/ESPN.  To be sure, they are walking into a scenario none of them have ever seen.  I don’t think anybody has a clue of what the atmosphere will be, how raw emotions will be, and when the next skeleton will come falling out of a closet – or how gruesome that skeleton will be.

*  *  *

From a strictly football perspective, the biggest story is Penn State’s first football game in 46 years without Joe Paterno as their head coach, and first game since 1950 without him as a member of the PSU coaching staff. 

Take a few seconds and ponder just how long of a time that is.  You can have your choice of obscure stats to put that time frame into perspective.  My current favorite:  The median age of U.S. citizens is 38, so well over half of the country was not alive when Paterno became Penn State’s head coach.

Paterno is more than just the winningest coach in college football history.  He is a sporting icon and a certifiable legend within college football.  I first became aware of Penn State and Joe Paterno in the mid-1980s.  At that time, I remember people wondering when he was going to retire. 

Over the last 5-10 years, the subject of JoePa’s retirement became an annual event much like Homecoming and controversy over the BCS.  When Penn State was competitive, it was a quiet, background conversation.  When PSU struggled, the conversation escalated to a national debate with loyal supporters clashing with those who felt it was time for a change.  Many people assumed that Paterno would rather die than retire.

Quite simply, Penn State’s first game without JoePa is monumental, historic, and under other circumstances, it would be the story of the year in college football.  Now it is just a side note.

*  *  *

I have been hearing and reading about the safety concerns of Nebraska fans attending  the game.  These concerns stem from the riots Wednesday night after Paterno’s firing was announced, as well as the unpleasant – if not ugly – experience many Nebraska fans had when the teams last met in 2002.  Nebraska fans reported being verbally assaulted, taunted, and feeling very concerned for their safety, simply for wearing Nebraska colors and apparel.  And this was at a game PSU won by 33 points.

I have read a reassuring statement from Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne, noting the extra security that will be on hand, yet he also stated that Nebraska fans should consider not wearing red to the game – an unprecedented comment.  The early kickoff time is expected to help, as fans will have less time to drink before the game starts.

Frankly, I’m not sure what the concern is about.  Yes, all those in attendance should be upset over the scandal, and many may be upset over Paterno’s firing.  Yet I don’t see that manifesting in violence against opposing fans, especially if those fans are respectful, polite, and empathetic (all traits that I believe most Nebraska fans to possess). 

If I were in charge of security that the game, I would be more concerned about a student-based protest against the university’s lack of response to Sandusky’s heinous acts or Paterno’s firing.

Moving the game is not a real option.  Penn State’s Beaver Stadium holds over 106,000 people.  Since there are only five other stadiums that can hold more than 100,000 people, approximately 40,000 fans would lose their ticket by moving the game to Pittsburgh (capacity 65,000) or Philadelphia (68,500).  And that doesn’t take into account all of the travel arrangements made by fans of both schools, as well as the economic impact a home game has on State College, PA.  I know some things are bigger than financial concerns, but any security concerns can be more easily addressed with extra police officers.

*  *  *

Football coaches talk about winning the three phases of the game:  Offense, Defense, and Special Teams.  For this game, I think there are two other key phases that will go a long way towards determining a winner.

Mental Toughness.  Which team – or which players – can leave all of the drama, controversy, and baggage in the locker room and focus on the game itself?  Who can block out the sickening images from the grand jury report and focus on executing their blocks, providing blanket coverage, or making a 45 yard field goal?  How does a 20-year-old kid ignore the dozens of news trucks, the wall to wall media coverage, and raw emotions on the PSU campus and play a game? 

Nebraska Assistant Coach Ron Brown had an excellent analogy of the focus needed by players:  “I gave my guys an example today of a snowflake. You can look at a snowstorm and just see the snow coming down, see it all, that’s not much focus. Try to follow a flake all the way to the ground. That’s focus. If your scope is small enough, you’ll have great focus. This game, what we’re going to do in those three hours at this football game is our focus right now.”  An excellent quote, but something that is easier said than done.

There have been times of “controversy” at Nebraska under Coach Pelini (and I use that term lightly, since every situation Bo has faced is light years away from this situation).  In those times, the Nebraska players and coaches go into an “us against the world” sort of bunker mentality – which has typically resulted in on-field success. 

I definitely see the Penn State players taking this approach, with the team forming a tight, and focused unit attempting to shut out all of the external noise.  They are playing for themselves and to reestablish pride for their university.  I have no idea if they can succeed.

For their part, Nebraska likely will also utilize the bunker approach.  They are coming off of a tough loss to an unranked Northwestern team, and need to shut out the distractions of the environment and focus on their team goals.  Normally, I would like Pelini’s chances to get his team in this state of mind, but I don’t think anybody knows what they’re walking into on Saturday.

Pre-Game Speech.  Every red-blooded football fan loves a good pre-game speech – the words designed to fire up, calm down, or motivate your team to go out and win the game, win one for the Gipper, or to play with a certain mindset.  They can be the stuff of legend (and of movie cliché) even if it is debatable just how well the speeches work, or if the message carries past the opening drives of a normal game. 

But this is no normal game.  The pre-game speech will be the opportunity for both coaches to put their players in the proper frame of mind before the game starts.

PSU Interim Coach Tom Bradley’s speech will likely pay homage to Paterno, instruct his players to play with pride for Penn State (expect a heavy “We are Penn State” theme), and ensure their focus is squarely on the game.  It’s hard to say what direction Bo Pelini will go, if he will acknowledge the scandal or focus completely on football.  He has the reputation for giving an excellent speech that fits the situation perfectly.  This game will test that talent.

It is quite possible that the winning team will be decided before the opening kickoff.

*  *  *

For the first time in my recollection as a football fan, I am wishing for a boring, uneventful game.  Let the Penn State team get out and honor their senior class on their last home game, honor Paterno’s coaching legacy, and make the first step towards moving forward from a horrible period in their history.

I am wishing for Penn State fans, students, and alumni to use this game to cheer, boo, applaud, cry, peacefully protest, or whatever else they need to do to start moving forward.  More specifically, I hope they do whatever it is they do without bothering the Nebraska fans.

I am wishing for Nebraska to be an excellent guest, to pay proper respect to the victims, the Penn State community, and yes, Coach Paterno, and to play a good game.

I am wishing for the ESPN crew to try to keep a little bit of the focus on the game, on the student-athletes who have worked and sacrificed for the opportunity to play a game they love – and not to be a background visual for a three-hour recap of the Sandusky scandal.

Most importantly, I’m wishing for a good, clean, and boring Big Ten football game. 

(And a Husker win wouldn’t hurt my feelings.)


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