LINCOLN — Nebraska football makes its first real trip to Penn State since 2002.
The 2011 game, while unforgettable, was an entirely surreal experience.
Nebraska's 17-14 win fell one week — almost to the hour — after the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke wide open with a Harrisburg Patriot-News report that the former Nittany Lion defensive coordinator would be charged with molesting several boys connected to his Second Mile charity. I recall clicking on the online version of the story and reading details of the charges just before kickoff of Nebraska's uninspiring loss to Northwestern.
The Huskers' porous defense that afternoon seemed insignificant by comparison.
National sports media packed into tiny, isolated State College within 24 hours. It watched — and frankly participated in — a compelling drama of this century. An aging icon of college football, Joe Paterno, was fired within days to the cheers of some and howls of others. Impromptu press conferences and rallies ruled the week, including one that resembled a riot of anger after Paterno's firing.
“No one wants to be a part of something like that,” coach Bo Pelini said. “That was a crazy week for us. I can't even imagine what they went through during that week.”
Pundits and fans debated whether the game should be played. What message would it send? Why bother with a game in the midst of a scandal?
But the Nittany Lions, behind interim coach Tom Bradley and Joe's son, Jay Paterno, wanted to play on. It was, after all, Senior Day, and Penn State was unbeaten in the Big Ten. The league certainly didn't budge. State College surely didn't want to lose its millions. Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne was inclined to play, even if he warned Husker fans two days before the game not to wear red to Beaver Stadium. Pelini had his misgivings, but kept those thoughts private until after the game.
Driving to the game that Saturday morning — through backwoods and hill villages that made you realize just how isolated Happy Valley really is — Rich Kaipust, Tom Shatel and I pondered just how strange it might be.
What I found was a three-hour truce. Hired gunmen walked the roof of Beaver Stadium, and cops on horses surrounded it, but a little girl came up to a horse to pet it, and that image, tense-but-tender, was a symbol for the day. Some fans hugged the Paterno statue. Others milled around at their tailgates, eating hot dogs and potato salad in near silence. Many wore blue ribbons for abuse awareness on their shirts or painted on their cheeks. Somehow, 107,903 fans thought the game was important enough to attend it.
In the press box, we were stunned — in a good way — by the midfield prayer between both teams. Nebraska and Penn State coaches had arranged it the night before, and the fans in the stadium first cheered a little as the teams hugged, then grew quiet and curious as Husker wide receivers coach Ron Brown prayed. Toward the end, they clapped, in rhythm, a kind of salute.
NU left tackle Brent Qvale on Monday recalled the sobriety of the crowd.
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“You could tell that all the things that had come out was on the fans' minds,” Qvale said. “You want to say it didn't affect the players, but I think it affected the players.”
It was a classic Big Ten game. A rugged beauty if you like this league, a 22-car pileup if you don't. Nebraska controlled most of it until the fourth quarter, when offensive coordinator Tim Beck dialed up the triple option with Rex Burkhead at quarterback and Tyler Legate as the dive back. That dynamic coupling produced a fumble that Penn State recovered and turned into a touchdown drive. Later, Lavonte David made a brilliant stop on fourth-and-1. His signature moment.
Penn State got a final, last-gasp drive, and I was on the field for it. I wish I could perfectly describe the emotion that moved through the stadium right then. It was cathartic, angry, hopeful. It was its own kind of prayer. I know the post-modern, cool thing is to insist, harshly, that those three hours didn't mean anything, that there is only cold, earned justice for Sandusky's victims, and even that, when it came, tasted like brine. But some small, good thing happened there, and journalists aren't in the business of ignoring it.
After the game, Pelini showed the best of himself, the best because he came by those words naturally.
“It's about doing what's right and wrong,” Pelini said that afternoon. “Trust me when I tell you, I don't know the specifics of the situation and I am not judging anybody. But the fact is young kids were hurt and that's a crime in itself. Like I said, it is a lot bigger than football, the NCAA, the Big Ten and anything else.”
Monday, Pelini picked right up where he left off in Happy Valley.
“I thought you saw two different schools and teams come together, fan bases, and came to understand that day what the big picture was,” he said. “There's a much bigger picture than that football game that day.
“But I think everybody was able to put it aside for a couple hours and come together, which I thought was pretty special. Not just the prayer before or a moment. But the whole football game. Hopefully we at Nebraska — fans, team, administration, everybody — came together with Penn State to help them through a tough time.”
The Nittany Lions had more tough times after that. Paterno died. The statue came down. The NCAA had a hammer. Yet they've weathered it with a surprisingly good coaching hire in Bill O'Brien. Penn State is still crippled by sanctions, but it's proud again. Its fans, I suspect, are back to the wilder, profane bunch who jangled Nebraska's nerves on a Saturday night in September 2002.
“The atmosphere is going to be definitely different,” Qvale said.
It'll never be quite the way it was in 2011.
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Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini
Video: Brent Qvale
Video: Ameer Abdullah
Video: Tommy Armstrong