SOLO IN ENEMY TERRITORY PROJECT PART 2: PENN STATE VS. ILLINOIS

By Pat Combs

Driving across Indiana lends itself well to thinking. There’s not a lot out there to distract a driver; this shouldn’t surprise anyone.

 http://www.gourmet.com/images/gmtlive/2012/100312/impact-of-2012-drought_608.jpg

( I didn’t actually take the above picture, but you get the point.)

I drove from my place in Lafayette across the border to Champaign, Ill., last Saturday to see my first Penn State football game in nearly two years.  I hadn’t seen the Nittany Lions play in person since they beat Michigan in 2010.

It’s safe to say that things have changed since then.

That’s primarily what filled my mind as I made my way through metropolises like Wingate and Veedersburg.  As Pete’s story from earlier this week mentioned, he and I each took in a game – or, in his case, games – in “enemy” territory.  It’s always been a dream of mine to see as many different college football stadiums as possible, so at least Memorial Stadium could be checked off the list.

You’ll notice that I omit words like “hostile” from this piece.  There’s a reason for that – Memorial Stadium and its fans couldn’t have been any more welcoming.  Naturally, I was concerned about how Illinois fans would treat opposing fans (namely, me) of an embattled team, but Illini fans were extremely benign.

Almost sleepy.

The worst I saw was a woman sitting in front of me who constantly complained about her team’s play during the game, but she’s an Illinois football fan – how much could she expect?  There was also a couple sitting a few rows behind me who seemed like they were straight out of a terrible football-themed comedy.  The man yelled “BLITZ!!!” before every play of the first half.  Every.  Play.  His wife yelled “TOUCHDOWNS!!!” only slightly less frequently (her use of the plural form of the word went for naught; Illinois scored just seven points).  Other than observing their knowledge of two football words, they seemed to know nothing of the game.

The positive experiences far outnumbered the minor annoyances of BLITZ and TOUCHDOWNS.  To start with, I had a terrific seat.  A woman and her son had an extra ticket and sold it to me for a very reasonable price.  I had gone to the game without tickets, figuring I’d gamble an hour-and-a-half drive rather than pay $50 to see Illinois football (would you?).  I spent some time in the Penn State alumni tent and had a pretty good time…seven minutes in, I’d already secured a free Rice Krispies treat and orange juice.  Big Ten football demands hearty breakfasts.

Not a bad view for $20.

While in the tent, I saw an older Penn State fan named Walter.  I did not discuss the game with Walter, nor did I even talk to him.  I didn’t even introduce myself to him.  How did I know Walter’s identity?  He was wearing a knitted sweater that had to have been 30 years old with his name emblazoned down the sleeve.  If I weren’t a grad student living on a stipend, I would’ve offered him at least $40 for it.  Sadly, the lighting in the tent combined with the obvious creepiness of taking a cell phone picture of an old guy’s arm prevented me from obtaining photographic evidence.

Everyone in Champaign (and Urbana, technically the city in which I parked) was beyond friendly.  Even the Illini band waved to and cheered for the Blue Band.  The parking attendant who took my money wished me luck and told me that the parking lot was full of mostly Penn State fans (she was right).  As I walked into Memorial Stadium, I passed a guy selling programs who was more than accommodating with his sales pitch:

“Yinz wanna buy a program?”

Yes, even the fine people of central Illinois are at least proficient in Pittsburghese.  One woman responded that she felt at home.

Memorial Stadium itself is a venue more notable for its architecture and history than its atmosphere.  It’s a stadium that held many games in which the Illini were led by Red Grange and displays its age well.  It would probably be a pretty cool scene should its inhabitants begin holding more meaningful games; I think the fans would be there to provide a strong environment if the stakes were higher than in the current post-Zook era.  The stadium has 200 columns ringing its exterior, giving it a pretty cool look.  Inside, large banners hung from the rafters display famous former players such as Grange, Dick Butkus and former Steelers legend Matt Cushing.  It occurred to me that I was inside the stadium where my favorite Penn State player of all-time, Brian Milne, scored the biggest touchdown of his career to cap one of the great drives in Nittany Lion history.

The external walls of Memorial Stadium.

The game itself was a successful one for myself and other Penn State fans, but my time on the inside of Memorial Stadium wasn’t all that eventful.  Aside from a convincing 35-7 Penn State win and the several perplexing chants of “OSKEE-WOW-WOW,” it was actually a pretty dull game.

In some ways, my excursion to Illinois was a bit disappointing.  I went to a college football game – a Division I football game!  A Big Ten football game! – completely devoid of animosity or even mild fan-inspired intensity.  I obviously didn’t want to hear anything disrespectful directed at Penn State fans, but I was looking forward to at least some football-related chiding from the home fans.  I wanted competitive banter.  I wanted some jawing back and forth.  I wanted just a little well-placed, football-specific vitriol.

I found none.

But as a Penn State fan traveling to a foreign stadium, I know how fortunate this situation was.  The Illinois fans I encountered were nothing short of classy and I heard not one word from an Illini faithful regarding the events of the past 11 months.  Of course, I’m glad I didn’t, because, for at least a few hours, football was about football, even for Illinois fans.

Now all they need to do is have their offense work on making TOUCHDOWN plural.

The proof of Penn State’s dominant performance.

 

— Pat Combs is a contributing writer for the Keystone Sports Spot. He is a Penn State alum and current Purdue grad student.

 

Advertisements

Coming Events: A closer look at the Solo in Enemy Territory Project

Earlier this week, I got a text from my buddy that said the following:

“Driving to Champaign this Saturday for PSU at Illinois. Alone. Guest blog post for Keystone Sports Spot?”

No one had ever asked to do this for me before so I jumped on the opportunity. After all, the more writers the better and I’d never say to an old college journalist friend. After I told him it should be a cool take, he replied:

“Especially since I’m the loser driving an hour and 45 minutes to see a game alone. Haha.”

To which I replied:

“I’m going to two Mets/Pirates games alone this week.”

My buddy didn’t hesitate to say, “Hahaha. You win!”

That’s when we came up with an editorial idea.

So what’s the point in my telling you about our little mobile exchange? Well first, if you didn’t realize it already, I’ll be having my close friend Pat on the Keystone Sports Spot to guest blog about the Penn State vs. Illinois football game this Saturday. Like myself, Pat graduated from Penn State in 2010 and he was also a journalism major.

Second, we’ll be putting together a 2-part series documenting our recent sports experiences from some pretty unique angles. Pat is venturing from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. to Champaign, Ill., alone. He, of course, will be going as a Penn State fan.

Penn State had a rough season before it even started. Up to this point, Penn State has been ordered to pay $60 million in sanctions, had a four-year football postseason ban enacted, and all of its wins before this season dating back to 1998 have been vacated. What’s more, Penn State cannot win the Big Ten Championship and has lost 17 scholarship players since March because of personal reasons, NCAA sanctions or dismissals. Essentially, Penn State isn’t playing for anything right now. What could make their next matchup fairly less relevant?  They’re playing against a 2-2 Fighting Illini team that lost at home last week to Louisiana Tech, 52-24. Illinois will be lucky to have a winning season, let alone contend for a Big Ten Championship or a decent bowl game.

Not the greatest matchup.

Similarly, I will be attending two Pirates vs. Mets game at Citi Field this week, also by myself. This situation threatens to be more agonizing than the Penn State game. It’s September and neither the Mets nor the Pirates are even close to making the playoffs.

Before the Pirates series started, the Mets had a record of 69-83. They were the fourth-worst team in the National League and were 23 games back of the division lead. Fan apathy is at a season high.

The Pirates were faring only slightly better. Before they met the Mets, the Buccos had a record of 75-77 and were 16.5 games back of the division leading Reds. More noticeable, however, was the Pirates’ epic collapse this season the second year in a row. Only a few months ago, the Pirates were leading the NL Central and were 16 games over .500. Not only did it appear that they would finish with their first winning season in 19 years (yes, with a 1 and a 9), they appeared to be a possible playoff team. At the beginning of this season, a second wild-card spot was added to both leagues, further enhancing the Pirates shot at the post season. Their odds increased by 12 percent, in fact. But somehow, the Pirates blew it and are on the verge of completing the most epic collapse in the history of baseball.

Essentially, we will be documenting the irrelevance of four teams – two early in their season and two late in theirs – and chronicling our experiences of going solo into enemy territory. If you have no idea what to expect, don’t worry. Neither do we.

Enjoy.

– Pete Dombrosky

Editor-in-chief, Keystone Sports Spot

Death Penalty May Have Hurt Penn State Less

When the Joe Paterno statue was taken down outside Beaver Stadium on Penn State’s campus Sunday, a small portion of the recent scandal’s visibility was also removed. No longer would people be able to gaze upon a symbol whose new meaning is deception and human indecency.

But sanctions handed out to Penn State this morning ensured that the football program will continue to serve as a public reminder of those horrible acts conducted by Jerry Sandusky and the subsequent cover up by Penn State officials.

NCAA President Mark Emmert announced that Penn State will be penalized with a $60 million fine, a four-year football postseason ban and vacation of all wins since 1998. The school also must reduce its number of scholarships from 25 to 15 per year for four years.

It was a harsh penalty, but it wasn’t the death penalty. That would have meant football at Penn State would have been suspended completely for up to four years.

During the announcement this morning, Emmert said that the death penalty would have hurt too many innocent people. “Suspension of the football program would bring with it significant unintended harm to many who had nothing to do with this case. The sanctions we have crafted are more focused and impactful than that blanket penalty.”

Many believe that Penn State got lucky in not receiving the death penalty. But I’m not so sure. These sanctions may actually be more impactful than the death penalty when it comes to the football program and public perception of the university. Penn State must now endure the “living-death penalty.”

With these actions, the NCAA is doing more than just keeping the football program from playing in the postseason and limiting recruiting and finances. These sanctions will keep the football program in full view of public scrutiny as it carries out its sentence. It is a public shaming stemming from the infamy that Penn State officials brought on themselves. The Nittany Lion will be shut into the stockade and the world will decide whether or not to let the tomatoes fly.

If the football program was completely shut down for a few years, the talk of Penn State football in any media capacity would die off quickly. There would be no football to speak of. Beaver stadium would be empty every Saturday and no one would feel the usual buzz in the air of a fall day in Happy Valley. Maybe this scenario of talking about nothing would work in a plot line of Seinfeld, but not for the national media. It would be an unsettling quietness, but it would be quiet nonetheless.

Then in a few years, Penn State would return to playing football and recruiting players like it always has. It would be a rebirth of football in State College, rising from the ashes and establishing a new identity forged in the absence of football. Their difficult sentence would be over and a new page would turn, helping people to forget about the previous chapters written before it.

The death penalty would have meant a fresh start eventually.

Instead, Penn State will begin a four-year span of meaningless football and public scrutiny. There will be no break from media analysis for the football program. There will be no fresh starts. There will be no bowl games, no Big Ten Championships and no hope to make the NCAA playoff when it begins in 2014. But there will be plenty of time each Saturday for broadcasters to talk about the events leading to the current situation. Viewers at home and at Penn State games will witness the walking-dead Nittany Lions carry out their penalty every week of the season. Talk may die down as time goes on, but the scandal will always be the 800-pound gorilla in Beaver Stadium.

Public perception of Penn State football won’t be helped by a mediocre team, either. With the loss of scholarships and inability to play for Big Ten Championships, National Championships and bowl games, the talent wells for Happy Valley are bound to hit drought conditions. Elite players won’t want to come to Penn State to play for nothing. These young men will play for Penn State’s competition and make the Nittany Lions’ road to success on the field that much harder.

The football team will be bled to death slowly for the next four years and beyond as fewer and fewer top recruits commit. A team of walk-ons just won’t win many games. In the coming years, Penn State will set a different precedent besides the sanctions imposed against them: Never in college football history will such a pedestrian team get so much media attention.

But public perception and sanctions aside, I believe Penn State will recover from this someday. The next decade will be an uphill crawl for everyone who represents the university – the football team, students, alumni and fans (myself included). Success with honor may not have meant anything to Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno and other Penn State brass, but it still means something to the rest of us and it’s our duty not to forget what happened while still moving on to set a new standard of excellence.

Football at Penn State will be relevant some day in the future, but it will be the most publicly scrutinized return to relevance in the history of college football.

%d bloggers like this: