Sunday, November 28, 2010

Penn State vs. Michigan State: Sparty Triumphs as a Lion Rally Fails

Ugh.  It wasn't any colder than it was two years ago when the Michigan State Spartans descended upon Beaver Stadium, but it sure felt that way.

Two years ago, a win against Michigan State would have given us a share of the Big Ten championship.  So the stadium was full through the fourth quarter, and excitement was in the air.  The reward for a win was a trip to the Rose Bowl.  The tightly packed bodies in the stands kept us all warm, as we anticipated a championship celebration complete with confetti and roses.

This year, in weather that was in the mid-30s but felt like the low-20s due to wind,  it was Michigan State that was playing for a share of the Big Ten championship.  But a lot of other things would have to happen for them to go to the Rose Bowl, most specifically Michigan had to beat Ohio State, something that Spartan fans had a hard time dealing with.

Penn State was playing to spoil Michigan State's chances at a title.  The Nittany Lions were also playing for a chance at a New Year's Day Bowl in Tampa or Jacksonville or, at worst, a December 28 trip to Tempe, Ariz.  Turns out, given the way the rest of the Big Ten teams fared, winning or losing didn't matter much to Penn State's bowl chances.  And in fact it may not have mattered to Michigan State's bowl chances.

They appear to be destined for the Capital One Bowl, win or lose.

It's nice that Penn State is bowl-eligible, and it will be great to play the best competition we can.  But other than that, the real benefit of going to a bowl is the extra practice that the NCAA allows.  If you're not in BCS contention, the location really doesn't matter!

Penn State was also playing for 18 seniors who were taking the field for the last time: Tyler Ahrenhold (S), Brett Brackett (WR), Chris Colasanti (LB), Andrew Dailey (S), Lou Eliades (T), Bani Gbadyu (LB), Kyle Johnson (S), Doug Klopacz (C), Kevion Latham (DE), Shelton McCullough (CB), Ollie Ogbu (DT), Evan Royster (TB), David Soldner (PK), Jonathan Stewart (TE), Anthony Tortortelli (G), Collin Wagner (PK), Stefen Wisniewski (G/C) and Graham Zug (WR).

These seniors have contributed a lot to Penn State's success in recent years.   Some lived up to or surpassed expectations, others had careers hindered by injury, others made key plays that will be memorable for particular games.  Some never saw playing time but contributed on the foreign team.
Whatever role they played on the team, they will be missed.

Congratulations to all these seniors not only for representing Penn State Athletics well but also for their success in the classroom.  Earning a Penn State degree is no small feat, especially given the commitment needed on a daily basis to compete in a top-tier athletic program.

The atmosphere in the stadium was lackluster at best.  When we arrived at the stadium at 9:30 a.m., our reserved parking lot was empty, and it was only three-quarters full when we left for our seats.

Except for the senior section, which was maybe two-thirds full (their last game at Beaver Stadium may have been motivating), the student section was the worst of the season.

It will take a while, I suspect, for Penn State and its fans to adjust to the new reality of post-Thanksgiving Saturday games.  The last one had been played in 1998.  The university didn't even seem prepared for it.  It was only after pleas from the football team that Penn State adjusted the dorm openings to Friday at 5 p.m. so students could be there for the 12 noon game.

There were gaping holes elsewhere as well—a huge empty section in the away visitor section, scattered empty seats throughout the stadium.  Those empty seats were filled in though by the thick layers of clothing that everyone wore to combat a tough wind.  The attendance was never announced at the stadium, but my best guess is that there were at least 10,000 empty seats.

I'm never sure how attendance is counted, anyhow.  Penn State has started to announce a new attendance feature: how many millions of fans (23 million plus) have watched a Joe Paterno coached football game at Beaver Stadium.  It's mystifying to me as to how that number is put together.  Because so many fans—the season ticket holders—have seen numerous games, it seems almost meaningless as a statistic.

But I digress.  Penn State lost the game, 28-22.  Although the score indicates a close game, it really wasn't.  At the end of the half, the game was 14-3.  At the end of the third quarter, the game was 21-3.  Not much good had happened for Penn State, other than a drive leading to a Collin Wagner field goal with five minutes left in the half.

Penalties in the first quarter against Penn State were an early momentum buster.  Of the 67 yards total lost in eight penalties against Penn State, Penn State lost 30 yards on four penalties in the first quarter.  For the entire game, Michigan State lost 24 yards on three penalties, and had only one penalty at the half.  The crowd was not happy with this, feeling that the officiating was uneven and booing the officials on several perceived missed holds.

Another big penalty occurred in the third quarter when Penn State's defense had stopped Michigan State, but Penn State got called for five yards for running into the kicker, enough to give MSU a first down.

But while penalties were a factor, overall Michigan State played a more solid and balanced game than Penn State did for three quarters.  Both teams had conservative play-calling designed for controlling time of possession.  Michigan State's defense held Penn State's rushing offense to 70 yards on 19 attempts, an average of 3.7 yards per rush.  In the third quarter, Penn State gained only three yards on seven rushing attempts.

Many Penn State fans left the game at the end of the third quarter, figuring that the game was over and leaving those of us left in the stands shivering in the wind.  Our friend Larry turned to us then and exclaimed, "Why can't Penn State be more like Auburn, Boise State or Oregon?  Penn State's offense is SO boring!"

That was before the fourth-quarter fireworks began.  A Penn State drive that started with 1:37 left in the third quarter wound up with a 25-yard McGloin pass to Joe Suhey and a touchdown.  That made the score 21-10.

But then Michigan State marched down the field in a six-play, 74-yard drive for a touchdown, making it 28-10 with 8:25 left on the clock.

At that point the stands really emptied out.  With everything to gain and nothing to lose, our "gunslinger" quarterback Matt McGloin raced against the clock and led a nine-play, 68-yard drive for an Evan Royster rushing touchdown.

Had Penn State completed the two-point conversion, the Nittany Lions would have been one touchdown and a field goal away from tying the game with 5:44 left on the clock.  The score was 28-16, and Penn State needed two touchdowns to win.  We were all thinking it was possible, but not likely.

But we stuck around, of course, because all of a sudden this game was NOT boring.

When Michigan State took over their intention was to run down the clock.  Penn State used two of its three timeouts during that drive.  Then, Nate Stupar made a big play against Michigan State's running back, Edwin Baker, forcing a fumble on the 50-yard line.  There was 2:02 left in the game.

It was a long shot to win, but at least this was entertaining and it woke up the crowd.  Cheers of "We Are...Penn State" reverberated among the few of us that remained.  Unfortunately for Larry, he had already left.  With little time left, McGloin went to work and got Penn State to the MSU 4-yard line.

With 1:11 left on the clock, Michigan State safety Trenton Robinson intercepted a touchdown pass from McGloin.

In a curious move and clear mental error, Robinson, instead of taking a knee that would allow for a touchback to the 20-yard line, decided to run out of the end zone.  This might have been OK except for one thing—he also fumbled on the MSU 4-yard line, giving the ball back to Penn State.

We could only imagine the Michigan State coaches going crazy on the sidelines.  You can be sure that Robinson will never make that mistake again.

So with 1:01 left on the clock, McGloin had another chance, and wasted no time completing a touchdown pass to Derek Moye.  A two-point conversion was attempted but not completed, making the score 28-22.

Wow.  With 55 seconds left on the clock Penn State was only six points down.  All they needed to do was succeed at an onside kick and they might actually be able to win this game.

But alas, it wasn't to be.  And frankly, Michigan State deserved this win more than Penn State did.   They played well throughout the game and were the better team on the field that day.

At the end of the game, Michigan State's celebration was a bit muted.  There was a bit of confetti and mostly loud cheering coming from the northeast corner of the end zone, where the mascot Sparty and the team rushed to celebrate after the game with its cold but hearty fans.

Congratulations to the Spartans for an amazing 11-1 season.

It's really a shame that they probably won't get the BCS bowl they deserve.  But they should be proud of the Big Ten Championship and what they accomplished.

And so ends a Big Ten rivalry that never developed into a true rivalry, with the Land Grant Trophy leaving Penn State and headed to East Lansing where it will be displayed until who knows when.

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