About 44 years ago, this Turkey joined a bunch of fellow Penn State students for a road trip to Syracuse to watch the last great Nittany Lions basketball team play arch-rival Syracuse. Bob Weiss, Carver Clinton, Terry Hoover, Joe McGovern, Ray Saunders, Paul Weinstein — those names have long faded into obscurity, but they are certainly remembered here. They wound up going to the 1965 NCAA Tournament quarter-finals that year, and I once again watched them at the Palestra in Philly, this time in a losing effort at the behest of Bill Bradley and the Princeton Tigers, which went on to finish third in the tournament. UCLA won, as they usually did back in those days of great John Wooden teams. But I digress. I’m an old fart, so I get off the track. We’re talking about Syracuse here, aren’t we?
Ohhhh, football, you say? Yeah, that’s right. OK.
That was my only trip to Syracuse. I haven’t been back since, but I well remember the football rivalry from those days. We would always be getting our asses kicked, both on and off the field. Syracuse, coached by Ben Schwartzwalder, a heavily decorated paratrooper in World War II, was the putative powerhouse of the East. They had a great running back tradition: Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Floyd Little, Larry Csonka—it seemed as if every year they reloaded and every year they found a future NFL Hall of Famer. The Syracuse game was always a big deal for Penn State—both the team and the students. Marauding Syracuse students would invade State College and attempt to paint the Nittany Lion shrine orange. (Today’s kids would probably skip the paint and wire the lion with plastic explosives.) On one such occasion, this Turkey participated in an all-night sentry vigil on a cold, cold night, in which a bunch of us took turns (not sober) in guarding the lion. Girls were there serving coffee for antifreeze and for sobriety, and both the girls and the coffee were hot.
Many years have passed since that Homecoming weekend Friday night in 1964. Those girls are grandmas and maybe even great-grandmas by now, but I’ll never forget times like that and I’ll never forget those Syracuse games back in the day. That year, 1964, Syracuse spoiled our Homecoming, 21-14; in 1965 Rip Engle’s team traveled to Syracuse and lost 28-21; and in ’66 the Orangemen came back to State College, beating the Nittany Lions 12-10. Then Joe Paterno took over the program. In 1967, Paterno’s first year as head coach, the Lions finally turned the tide, smashing the Orange on their home field 29-20. The next year, our great, undefeated 1968 team kept the streak going with a 30-12 win at Beaver Stadium. Those last two games made us feel as if we had really arrived as the dominant team in the East, and in the case of 1968, in the nation as well, as we finished #2 in the polls.
We last played Syracuse in 1990, beating them 27-21 at home. Both Syracuse and Penn State football programs were “Eastern Independents.” Then came the formation of the Big East football conference, in which Penn State and athletic director Joe Paterno tried to get involved in, but the deal wasn’t right. Syracuse went with the Big East, in which it had been a basketball power; Penn State went with the Big Ten. The football rivalry, which had existed since 1922, ended with the Nittany Lions leading the series 40-23-5.
Penn State will play Syracuse this year and next in a home-and-home series. Syracuse will be the host this year. Eighteen years have transpired since the Nittany Lions (2-0, 0-0 Big Ten) have played Syracuse (0-2, 0-0 Big East). The Orange are now in a down cycle whereas Penn State is, well, we don’t really know what Penn State is at this point yet, do we? Instead of old Archibold Stadium, Syracuse now has an inflatable domed stadium, the Carrier Dome. That’s nice, but their performances on the field over the past several years have been largely deflating. They’re presently coming off a 42-28 drubbing by the Mid-America Conference Akron Zips in which Akron rolled up 478 yards. They were never in the game. On the previous week they lost to Big Ten whipping boy Northwestern, 30-10. Northwestern rang up 484 yards, and had 25 first downs to Syracuse’s 11. Tyrell Sutton ran for 141 yards. Syracuse was thoroughly dominated.
In three years under head coach Greg Robinson, the Orangemen are 7-28. To say that Robinson’s job is on the line would be to state the obvious. I just did. Sue me, already.
This weekend, the much hyped, rivalry renewing game is part of a weekend-long celebration of the late, great Syracuse halfback, Ernie Davis. The Nittany Lions hope to spoil the celebration just a little bit, while the Orange are hoping the inspirational film presentation will move its team to new heights. The latter is not likely, based on what we’ve seen of Syracuse under Robinson. Look for Evan Royster and Stephfon Green to have a field day against the #112 rushing defense—for them to gain 150 yards each would not be a stretch. This Turkey would not expect to see the vaunted Spread HD playbook opened up even to the extent that it was against Oregon State. I think it will be back to basics against Syracuse, which should be enough. Running plays will probably outnumber passing plays two-to-one.
Before the season began, friend EggMan predicted that the Lions would blow this game. Up there in the air-conditioning capital of the world, they hold a big grudge and would gladly rise to the occasion. Oh yeah? I just wanted to publish this in advance of the game, just in case he’s right. He won’t be, but if he is, I’ll gladly kiss his ass in Kaufmann’s window on Fifth and Smithfield in da Burgh.
And now, we reach the feature that you all (both of you) have been waiting for—the Official Turkey Poop Prediction. But first, let me just say that my emotional overreaction to last week’s suspensions should be disallowed. The original projection of 36-24 was more like it, but it was still way off base. The Nittany Lions handily beat the spread. I didn’t know just how bad the Oregon State defense would be. No chance of making a similar mistake this week. Syracuse is just plain bad. They suck big time. This result is liable to be more like Week 1. The current gambling line has Penn State favored by 27.5 with an over/under of 52, which would suggest a final score of 40-12. However, it ain’t gonna be that close. Penn State 63, Syracuse 10, as another patsy pushover bites the dust.