With the Lions enjoying the weekend off, it’s a slow news week. The Turkey, however, is not taking the week off. Correction—my liver is taking the weekend off from the usual game related overindulgence, but my mightier than the sword pen is not. Before I move on to the Land Grant Trophy game with Michigan State coming up next weekend, I want to toss in some spurious editorial comments.
When You’re Smiling, the Whole World Smiles with You
Remember the bad days, barely a year ago? Remember the rampant cynicism about the death of the Penn State football program and its relegation to the dregs of the Big Ten among the perennial bottom feeders of the league? Remember the shameless cries of “Joe Must Go!” from the sports press and the so-called fans?
You’re not hearing that sort of stuff anymore. In an earlier article, I wrote about the death of the Joe Must Go movement. Now, after turning around the program, you’re hearing a different kind of rumbling, lionizing the old lion and his football team. You know that things have turned around when Joe’s son Jay telling the press that Joe might coach another 20 years draws appreciation, not scorn.
We hit rock bottom last year, to be sure, with negative reinforcement coming from all angles. One of the biggest indications of Penn State’s impending irrelevancy at the nadir of the slide was in the reluctance of the NFL teams to draft Nittany Lions this past spring. I wrote about that, too, in an article entitled “NFL Draft Grumble: Rock Bottom?” but I might well be writing a different story in the spring of 2006. The Lions have caught the eye of the national sports press—aka “da media”—and will play in a major bowl. Several Penn State players are up for awards. You can be damn sure that with all this exposure, Penn State players will not be snubbed in next year’s draft!
Given the big slide, the old man himself, JoePa, had become a favorite whipping boy of the press. Very little was being written about the individual Lions, too. Not finding anything good to write about, the national press amplified the negatives. But times have changed there, too. Just this past week, two lengthy Paterno interviews were aired on national TV, one on HBO’s prime-time sports program Costas NOW and the other on ABC’s College Football. Both were flattering and, although the obvious issue of Joe’s age came up, he handled it with the disarming smile we haven’t seen for several years. The team is getting more mention, too, as are its individuals. In Sports Illustrated this week, there appeared an article about defensive end Tamba Hali.
Award nominations, while indicative of an individual player’s ability, rarely happen if no one is paying attention to the team. This year, Paul Posluszny, Michael Robinson, and Alan Zemaitis are all up for awards.
The students woke up, too. From “Paternoville” to the declaration of “white outs,” the students have burst forth from their shroud of apathy. Think of the seniors, in whose freshman year the Lions were 9–4 but who then had to suffer through two seasons with a total of seven wins. All of a sudden, the football team is relevant to those kids’ identity. Their Penn State pride has become more well rounded.
‘Tis true, my faithful readers, that nobody loves you when you’re down and out but everybody loves a winner!
Rankings and Bowls
We’re getting respect in the national rankings, too. Both polls have us at #5 this week. With LSU defeating Alabama, LSU hopped over us to the #4 slot and Miami moved up to #3. Looking forward, don’t be surprised to see Alabama jump back over the Lions again if Alabama wins the rest of their games and PSU beats Moo U.
The SEC is a tough conference with a lot of top-notch teams. They’re seriously beating each other up at this point of the season, playing at a very high level. In the SEC West, Alabama, Auburn, and LSU are all worthy of BCS bowls, yet only one will wind up in the SEC championship game. In the SEC East, Georgia, Florida, and even upstart, Spurrier-led South Carolina have a chance to represent their division in the SEC championship, but only Georgia is a legitimate BCS team. Just who will represent the SEC in the BCS is up in the air right now.
You all know that the Big Ten champion is guaranteed a slot in a BCS bowl, and if Penn State beats Michigan State, that slot will go to Penn State. If the Lions lose to Michigan State, Ohio State has the inside track, unless they lose to Michigan at da Big House. And Michigan still has a shot!
While it seems likely that USC and Texas will remain undefeated and will battle each other in the Rose Bowl for the [still somewhat mythical] national championship, the rest of the BCS slots are up in the air. The ACC, SEC, and Big East champions have not yet been determined. Notre Dame is guaranteed a slot if they finish in the top 12—as it right now seems they will—so there’s not much room for at-large candidates.
So, while the national championship game may not provide much controversy because both USC and Texas will be undefeated and were 1–2 practically wire-to-wire, the selections for the other BCS bowls will evoke considerable scorn. With all the very good SEC, ACC, and even Big Ten teams that won’t be getting into BCS bowls, do we really need to put the winner of the unranked South Florida vs. #13 West Virginia game in there? Ohio State has one of the very best defenses in the country, but if Penn State beats Michigan State, and Ohio State beats Michigan, Ohio State probably will not be in a BCS bowl. Depending on the SEC and ACC championship, teams like Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Virginia Tech, and Miami could be left out. (But what a helluva good Capital One Bowl Alabama vs. Ohio State would be!)
Think about it, man! Could this be the death of the BCS? Let’s say we wind up with unranked South Florida vs. #22 Florida State in the Orange Bowl? Suppose they gave a party and nobody came? It would be reminiscent of the Last Annual Blockbuster Bowl in—what was it? 1993?—when Wayne Huizenga’s geniuses locked in Penn State and Stanford early and they both wound up the season with mediocre records. I and about six other people attended that game. Even attempts to bill it as “The Genius [Bill Walsh] vs. The Legend [Joe Paterno]” were not enough to drum up support for it. The Genius won, 24–3, but no one cared. Anyhow, the Blockbuster Bowl never pretended to be la creme de la creme. But I digress. What happens when the lesser bowls are of greater interest to the football community and their wallets than the BCS bowls? Know what I mean?
As Paterno said most eloquently, “The BCS is a joke.”
What’s the Land Grant Trophy All About?
Ever since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten, they have played their final game of the season against Michigan State for the Land Grant Trophy. This contrived rivalry, based on the fact that both schools are Land Grant institutions, certainly does not have the same emotional impact as playing for the Little Brown Jug or Paul Bunyan’s Axe. And to this Turkey’s bird-brained mind, it doesn’t have the same emotional impact as playing a trophyless instrastate rivalry game like the Pitt game used to be in the old days or a neighboring state war like the Ohio State game should be, if the Buckeyes weren’t already Michigan’s major rival. Hell, how many of you even know that this annual game is being played for the Land Grant Trophy? And how many of you know what a “land grant” is in the first place? The Turkey aims to ameliorate this rampant ignorance.
Blogger Bill Kline of Nittany Lines had this to say back in September:
Penn State has force fed Michigan State as a season-ending rival, with the winner getting the Land Grant Trophy, but that’s as artificial as Pamela Anderson’s measurements. I mean, what the hell is a Land Grant Trophy and why should anyone care?
Good question, Willie!
What is a Land Grant institution? We mentioned that both Penn State and Michigan State are land grant institutions. They also happen to be the two oldest ones. Both were chartered in 1855, fully seven years before the advent of land grant institutions, which became a reality with the the Morrill Act. The purpose of the Act, which President Lincoln signed into law in 1862, was to provide a second tier of education to the populace with an orientation toward practical matters such as agriculture and mechanics. At the time, 72 land-grant institutions were envisioned to fulfill the need for “industrial” education. You see, the universities of the time were snootily tied to the classics, which evolved out of the European concept of higher education. Classical education was more associated with class and privilege than the down-to-earth notions of agriculture and machinery. Here is an excerpt from the Act:
…the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college [in each state] where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the states may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.
In Michigan, disgruntled students in Ann Arbor longed for learning about animal husbandry instead of reading Plato in its original classical Greek. Accordingly, in a pasture east of Lansing, Michigan State started its life in 1855 as the Agricultural College of Michigan, chartered 10 days earlier than Pennsylvania’s Farmer’s High, which in 1862 changed its name to the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania. Both became land grant institutions in 1862, as models for the proposed schools to be built later under the Act. So, our histories are similar, related through the Morrill Act of 1862.
Nevertheless, only one of the two institutions is called “Moo U.” I suppose that the derisive nickname probably dates back in spirit to those days when the vocationally minded students split from the classically oriented college in Ann Arbor. To this day, there is class differentiation in the Great Lakes State. Supposedly, the better students attend the University of Michigan while the slackers go to Michigan State. We’ll let them debate that in Michigan. The Turkey will take neither side. However, I grew enamored of the nickname Moo U when I first heard it, so you’ll see it from time to time in this column.
As I said, the football rivalry is contrived. The Morrill Act dates back to 1862, but this quasi-rivalry started in the waning years of the 20th Century, in 1993, when Penn State joined the Big Ten. Nothing so graphically illustrates the silliness of this contrived rivalry as the Land Grant Trophy itself, here described in an excerpt from an opinion by Jeff Frantz, published in the November 23, 2002 issue of The Daily Collegian:
The Land Grant Trophy, designed by Michigan State’s then-head coach George Perles—first mistake, letting a football coach design something other than a play—features little statuettes of The Nittany Lion and the Spartan, a classical Greek-looking athlete type-thing and pictures of Old Main and Michigan State’s Beaumont Tower, all stuck on a slab of veneered wood. The word “eyesore” doesn’t begin to describe this monstrosity. It’s cluttered. It’s cramped. It would get booed out of the Museum of Bad Art.
I tried in vain to find a picture of this monstrosity in time for the column, but I struck out. Apparently, nobody is proud enough of the stupid thing to want to be seen kissing it in a published photo. I figured that the official Penn State and Michigan State athletics web sites–at least one of them–would have a picture, but noooooooooooooooo. This trophy must be like your cousin with the obscene tattoo who never seems to be represented in family photo albums. I would be extremely grateful if anybody out there could send me a picture of this ugly-ass trophy. I’ll publish it here with full credit to whomever provides it.
[Editor’s Note: my wishes were fulfilled, thanks to reader Ricci Manner. Below is a picture of the great monstrosity. –TNT]
So, anyway, the notion of an intense rivalry between two schools not in the same state, not in neighboring states, but rather in two states separated by Ohio plus a couple of Great Lakes, is pretty ludicrous. The significance of the Land Grant Trophy, like that of this “rivalry,” is not likely to increase with age.
The Great Big 2005 Land Grant Trophy Game!
When Penn State travels to East Lansing, the game’s importance to both teams will transcend the relevance of the silly Land Grant Trophy. The #5 Nittany Lions (9-1, 6-1 Big Ten) will be playing for the Big Ten championship and a BCS bowl bid, whereas the unranked Michigan State Spartans (5-5, 2-5) are playing for mere bowl eligibility. Oh, sure, they would be headed to the Horseshoe Curve Bowl at Altoona Stadium over there by my Uncle Charlie’s old house, but the holidays are more festive in Altoona than in East Lansing and the beer isn’t Stroh’s.
This is a crazy series. No matter what goes on during the rest of the season, this Land Grant Trophy game seems to always provide thrills and chills. Sometimes it is closer than it should be; sometimes it is a blowout when relative records and stats suggest that it should be close. Just looking at the scores of the past nine contests tells you that: 32-29, 14-49, 51-28, 28-35, 42-23, 42-37, 61-7, 10-41, and 37-13. Wild and wooly barn burners. In 1997, the Lions went into this game 9-1, their only loss having been to Michigan, and wound up losing 49-14. Last year, the Nits took an absolutely putrid record of 4-6 into the LGT game but won it 37-13. And so it has gone.
The Spartans started out this season with high hopes. They won their first four games, including a 44-41 victory over Notre Dame. However, since that time, they have only managed to beat Indiana. Their only other Big Ten win was an early season blowout of Illinois, who couldn’t beat Altoona High if their train got stuck at the Horseshoe Curve on the way to Champaign.
But I implore you to not count Moo U. as a win yet! Not only can anything happen in this game, but also Michigan State’s offense is prolific. They have amassed over 450 yards in total offense in each game but one this year and they are averaging over 500 yards per game. They rank 5th in NCAA Division I-A in total offense.
How does a team with that kind of offensive power manage to lose half its games, you ask? Easy. Their defense sucks, ranking 95th in the nation and allowing 421.2 yards per game.
In their most recent outing against Minnesota, which they lost 41-18, they kept that record intact, ringing up 454 total yards. Of that total, 310 were aerial, on a 29-45, two touchdown performance by Moo U. quarterback Drew Stanton. The Spartans, however, entered the fourth quarter with only three points on the scoreboard. Stanton spreads the ball around a lot, hitting six different receivers for three or more completed passes. As an individual performer, he ranks 8th in the nation in passing efficiency and 9th in total offense.
The Moo U. kicking game is horrendous, too. So if it comes down to a last-second field goal to win a 101-99 seesaw slugfest, my money is on the Nittany Lions.
The Nittany Lions rested up this week, healing their bumps and bruises. They were a bit beat up and Paterno had made the observation that they appeared “a couple of steps slower” on the practice field than at the beginning of the season. Michael Robinson was a bit off in the Wisconsin game, which might be attributable to the bruised sternum that he suffered in that game. Paterno gave the boys the weekend off, and a little home cooking doesn’t hurt, either.
So, they should be in good shape to win this game but they must nevertheless not lose their focus. This is the game that will make the statement for this overachieving 2005 edition of the Nittany Lions, and this Turkey predicts a convincing win.
Favorite Big Ten Bar Bet
This one was given to me by a babe in Detroit around 1979, long before Penn State entered the Big Ten. I hope it wins you some beers.
Q: Which Big Ten team has never been to the Rose Bowl?
This always inspires a lot of conjectures about Indiana, but they’ve been there. Northwestern certainly has. Who is it, then?
A: The University of Chicago.
The University of Chicago, a former member of the Big Ten Athletic Conference, is presently a member of the CIC, an academic alliance of the Big Ten plus the University of Chicago.