Published Friday, November 9, 2012 at 10:23 pm / Updated at 1:31 am
Shatel: In the forced NU-Penn State rivalry, respect is well-earned
See photo showcases of the action and the fans from last season's Nebraska-Penn State matchup.

Here's a suggestion. Maybe it's a request. When Nebraska fans recognize the visiting team today, clap a little stronger, cheer a little louder.

The Penn State Nittany Lions are a team on a road to nowhere. A ship sailing to no port.

They're in the first year of a four-year NCAA postseason ban, for crimes none of the players or coaches committed. But they're handling their fate with heart, class and some pretty darned good football.

For that, they deserve our respect.

Of course, feel free to show your indifference, too.

This is Designated Rivalry Day. Can you feel it?

This season is the 30th anniversary of the Crooked Sideline Game, but today when the Lions roar out of the tunnel, they'll be another bruising Big Ten opponent, another tough out on the road to Indy, another potential comeback awaiting Taylor Martinez.

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany is a powerful guy. But not even he can wave his wand and make Penn State-Nebraska a rivalry. This is as forced as Colorado, without the lame farm jokes.

It was the price of admission into the Big Ten, and that's fine. The two latest guys to the party, you play each other. The Expansionist Rivalry.

Actually, it should be called the History Channel Rivalry or ESPN Classic Rivalry. The game should come with an annual alumni touch football game, although you'd have to pardon Roger Craig and Curt Warner if they lowered their shoulders and trampled people, out of habit.

Too bad this didn't happen in 1982, when Joe Paterno and Tom Osborne were in their prime. Now there's an annual series that would have caught your attention. And the nation's.

The best drama of this series, arguably, is behind us. It's unlikely that the annual Huskers-Lions game will be for high stakes, unless they meet in the Big Ten championship game, and how often will that happen? Let me ask Urban Meyer and I'll get back to you.

Meanwhile, there's this matter of the Penn State probation and scholarship limits, which could prove devastating over time. There's no telling what's in store for Penn State football in the next several years, but it probably won't lend itself to classic games with Nebraska.

Ideally, it would be nice to sit back and see where the Big Ten journey takes Nebraska, and who lights the spark and who doesn't. But, until further notice, NU and PSU are rivals of convenience.

It worked well last year, in a surreal week that ended in a day of temporary healing, with NU assistant Ron Brown leading both teams in prayer before the game. Paterno had been fired days earlier, the lid was only beginning to open on the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and the Huskers sneaked in and out of Happy Valley with a win.

This year, it's all about the football. It's about one team trying to get back to a championship, the other helpless in NCAA chains.

But these rivals of convenience do have one interesting angle in common today.

Malcolm Moran sees it, too. After six years, Moran is leaving his post as Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Penn State. He's headed to a new job at Indiana University. Moran spent most of Friday speaking to students and faculty at the University of Nebraska about the events at Penn State in the last year.

In his “previous life,” Moran covered major college football and basketball for 30 years at places like the New York Times, USA Today and the Chicago Tribune. This isn't his first trip to Lincoln. It might be his 100th.

What he's seeing this season out of Penn State coaches and players reminds him of another team, say, 17 years ago. A team very close to Husker fans.

The circumstances that shaped the seasons of the 1995 Nebraska and 2012 Penn State teams are different. But he wonders if the reaction of these Nittany Lions isn't similar to Osborne's relentless national champions of 1995.

There's an eerie similarity. The Penn State community and university have been broad-brushed by what appears to be a sordid cover-up by a handful of men in power at PSU. Back in 1995, the Husker community, and team, were vilified by the national media as a “win at all costs” culture in the Lawrence Phillips saga.

“Part of what we've seen in the last year is how personal it is,” Moran said. “I think it's something that the people here can relate to. In programs like this, people who have no connection to the university feel that they are part of it. It's the same thing at Penn State. For everyone who follows the program, it's very personal.

“Then you have this blanket pronouncement of a culture gone awry, with no evidence of that being (widespread). People all over Penn State take it personally. So do the coaches and members of the team who had nothing to do with it.

“I remember being in Tempe in 1995, at that Fiesta Bowl. That team played like it was on a special mission, and they took it out on the Gators that night. It was very personal.”

Today you will see a well-coached Penn State team, a bunch with talent and a quarterback, Matt McGloin, showing big-time improvement in new head coach Bill O'Brien's system. Memorial Stadium is a tough den, but when you've been singled out by the NCAA president himself, you don't rattle easily.

The Lions can't erase what happened last year. They can't change that legacy, how people might look at Penn State for years, decades, into the future.

But they can play for the love of the game, and for the love of their school and team. In that way, these Lions are bringing some character, some honor back to the school.

“I agree completely,” Moran said. “They're doing it for each other, they're doing it for this place and they're doing it for the people who care about them.”

That's their prize this season. It's well-earned.

Contact the writer:


* * *

>> See this week's edition of "The Big Red Today Show":

>> Video: See last year's pregame prayer at Penn State:

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.



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