UNIVERSITY PARK — The shiny piece of oak, polished and carved into an ovoid shape complete with a set of laces, bears Dan Rooney’s name and contains a piece of his pro football team’s former stadium.
Next year come this time it will belong to either the Penn State Nittany Lions or the Central Florida Knights after the two teams meet in Dublin, Ireland, in the Croke Park Classic.
Rooney, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ chairman and former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, was on hand with Gaelic Athletic Association Director General Paraic Duffy, as GAA and Croke Park officials traveled to Happy Valley to continue planning for next year’s game.
“Ambassador Rooney was quite reluctant to have the trophy named after him because he’s a very humble man,” Duffy said. “But we were very persistent and insistent that we eventually persuaded him to agree.”
The football-shaped trophy is made of a 4,200-year-old piece of oak and contains a piece of steel from Three Rivers Stadium, the home of the Steelers until the team moved to Heinz Field for the 2001 season.
Rooney said the trophy should be named after someone from Ireland, but GAA officials wanted an American’s name on the trophy as the Nittany Lions and Knights will become the first two teams to play American football at the stadium since the Steelers beat the Chicago Bears there in 1997.
While Croke Park typically hosts Gaelic football and hurling, Duffy said the GAA expects the game to sell out. The stadium is expected to have a capacity of 68,000 when configured for American football.
“I’ve been to quite a few NFL games over the years, this is the first time I’ve been to a college game and the atmosphere is absolutely fantastic,” Duffy said just prior to Saturday’s game between Penn State and UCF at Beaver Stadium. “You can see what it means. The relationship between the football team here and the supporters is incredible. Especially what Penn State’s gone through the past number of years.”
Players return to action
Linebackers Mike Hull and Ben Kline both returned to action after sitting out last week’s game against Eastern Michigan with unspecified injuries. Safety Ryan Keiser also returned after being questionable for the game with an upper body injury.
Hull made four tackles, playing a limited number of snaps, while Keiser made two stops, broke up a pass and also returned to holding duties on place kicks. Hull played with a brace on his right knee.
“He’s giving us everything he’s got,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said of Hull.
Ficken sets career highs
Kicker Sam Ficken booted a 47-yard field goal to surpass his previous longest kick of 46 yards. In the process, Ficken extended his Penn State record for consecutive makes to 15 with his down-the-middle try in the second quarter.
But Ficken missed a 57-yarder at the end of the first half, snapping his streak. Ficken may have had a shot at a closer kick but quarterback Christian Hackenberg was sacked on second down and without any timeouts left, Penn State was forced to spike the ball on third down to stop the clock and set up a desperate field goal try.
Ficken was just short on the kick.
Another streak snapped
UCF quarterback Blake Bortles had not thrown an interception since Oct. 27, 2012.
The junior threw 232 passes in games since then without a turnover. But Penn State’s Malcolm Willis ended that streak when he intercepted a deep pass from Bortles late in the second quarter. Willis floated over in front of UCF wideout Breshad Perriman and beat Perriman to the ball in the air. Penn State failed to turn Willis’ pick into points when Ficken missed from 57 yards five plays later.
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.