LINCOLN, Neb. — The drive from one Big Ten geographic extreme to the other involves curving through hilly Pennsylvania terrain and cruising along the Great Plains.
The majority of the 1,100-mile journey from State College to Lincoln, Neb., is spent on Interstate 80.
The highway links manufacturing and agricultural hubs. It also links two large universities developing into football rivals.
Nebraska defeated Penn State 32-23 this past weekend, making the programs 2-for-2 in staging memorable Big Ten games. The Cornhuskers joined the profitable conference as its 12th member last year.
From bombastic head coaches who wear hats and sweatshirts on the sidelines to gaudy lists of past All-Americans, the Big Ten’s newbies possess striking similarities.
A league with an odd number of team’s until Nebraska’s entry, the Nittany Lions and Cornhuskers are locked in a long-term series. The programs, which play in separate divisions, are league-appointed crossover opponents, meaning they will play every year through at least 2016 and likely longer. The Big Ten hasn’t set schedules beyond 2016. Penn State joined the league in 1993, leaving behind most of its cozy Eastern rivalries.
The teams were evenly-matched this year. Nebraska gained 439 yards. Penn State gained 391. The Cornhuskers capitalized on three turnovers, including two inside their own 10, and put the game away on a 33-yard field goal with 23 seconds left. The game included controversy, with referees ruling Penn State tight end Matt Lehman fumbled before crossing the goal line midway through the fourth quarter. Replays appeared to show otherwise.
After leading 20-6 at halftime, Penn State allowed 26 second-half points, squandering a chance to earn a signature road victory in coach Bill O’Brien’s first season.
The victory gives Nebraska an 8-6 lead in the all-time series. Penn State was forced to vacate its 40-7 victory in 2002 because of NCAA sanctions. Five of the past seven meetings have been decided by fewer than 10 points.
The programs will be forever linked because of their stirring 2011 game, a 17-14 Nebraska victory played three days after Joe Paterno’s firing. The game was Penn State’s first following early legal maneuverings in the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal. Players from both teams gathered on the Beaver Stadium grass and held a prayer vigil for sex abuse victims as a sellout crowd of 107,903 fans watched.
The teams again played before a large crowd Saturday, with 85,527 fans filling a stadium undergoing renovations. Memorial Stadium is being expanded, and by next year more than 90,000 fans will watch games there. Nebraska has sold out 324 straight games, a streak spanning 50 years.
In a state without a major professional team, the Cornhuskers are the main attraction. Legendary coach and retiring athletic director Tom Osborne’s name and image adorns various parts of Memorial Stadium. The school’s major football awards, including Heisman trophies for Eric Crouch, Mike Rozier and Johnny Rodgers, are displayed in a stadium lobby opened to the public on gamedays.
Before the NCAA forced Penn State to vacate 112 victories, the Nittany Lions and Cornhuskers were among eight FBS teams with more than 800 victories. Paterno and Osborne led undefeated teams in 1994. The teams never met because of college football’s archaic bowl system and voters awarded the Cornhuskers the national title, an outcome still bothering Penn State fans nearly 20 years later.
The programs lack the talent accumulated during the heydays of Paterno and Osborne, but in most years, the schools notch anywhere from 7 to 10 victories.
Scholarship reductions attached to the NCAA sanctions will make it difficult for Penn State to keep pace with Urban Meyer and Ohio State. Maintaining a competitive series with Nebraska isn’t an unreasonable objective. Penn State and Nebraska both started 12 underclassmen this past weekend.
Last year’s ordeal and this year’s exciting game have strengthened the relationship between the schools. Nebraska’s Bo Pelini, a fiery, no-frills coach from the Rust Belt, lauded Penn State throughout last week and embraced gritty senior linebacker Michael Mauti after the game.
“I have a lot of respect for Coach Pelini and all the players that were coming up to us and just saying how proud they were of us and how we stuck together throughout this season,” Mauti said. “There was a lot of respect there mutually.”
The congeniality is already filtering to younger players.
“You have to respect your opponent and that’s a good opponent,” said Penn State redshirt freshman Deion Barnes, an ultra-talented defensive end who collected three tackles for losses. “I think definitely there’s a lot of respect between the teams.”
A map suggests Ohio State should be Penn State’s top conference rival, but as long as Ohio State plays Michigan, defeating the Nittany Lions will never be the Buckeyes’ top conference priority.
So, perhaps, Penn State should map jump, or at least look down Interstate 80 for its marquee conference game.
“As soon as I learned we were going to be playing Nebraska a couple of years ago, I was really excited about it,” Mauti said before this year’s game. “It’s just two great programs really going at it. It’s just one of those games where you know it’s going to be competitive every time you get on the field.”
Two years into Nebraska’s Big Ten tenure haven’t altered this thinking. The programs belong on the same field.