Penn State

Penn State at Nebraska: A Rivalry Mired in Controversy Intensifies

There is no turning back the clock.  Not to 1982, when #2 Nebraska played #8 Penn State and lost its chance to play for a national championship due to an errant call on the sidelines.

How do I know that call was errant?   A call that Penn State and Nebraska fans have been arguing about for thirty years?  What Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald called the "Crooked Sideline"? 

Mike McCloskey is the tight end who caught the ball out of bounds that led to Penn State's touchdown and win as time ran out.

At one point in my professional career, before I arrived at Penn State, I happened to talk with someone at work about Penn State football.  This man had been a college football official in 1982.  I don't even remember his name.  But I remember the conversation as if it were yesterday.

This colleague was not the official who made the call.  But he was officiating on the sidelines for that Penn State-Nebraska game and he was involved in the consultation on that call.

It was a bad call, he told me.  Nebraska had sent its game tape to prove to the conference officials in charge of officiating that game that they had been wronged.  There was a referee meeting the week after that game to review the game tape, go over what happened, and make sure such a bad call didn't happen again.

This was, of course, before instant replays had become a regular part of the college football game. Now, football games still get some bad calls, mostly errant penalty calls, which aren't subject to review.  But it's far less often that a play subject to review, like a touchdown, turns out to be a bad call.  The errant calls are usually reversed today.

Terry had the pleasure of going to the Sugar Bowl on January 1, 1983 to watch Penn State beat Georgia for its first national championship.  Had there been instant replay then, Nebraska would probably have been there instead of Penn State.

And so I can understand the hard feelings over the last thirty years that Nebraska was cheated out of a national championship, a championship that would have been the first under head coach Tom Osborne.  Instead, it was the first under head coach Joe Paterno.

No, there's no turning back the clock.  Not to 1994, when Nebraska and Penn State were both undefeated, but in the pre-BCS college football environment, it was the AP Poll and the Coaches' Poll that determined who would play whom.

Nebraska was ranked #1, Penn State was ranked #2, and Miami, a 10-1 team, was ranked #3.

There was a lot of press sentiment towards Nebraska's head coach Tom Osborne, who had had a stellar career at Nebraska but had still not won a national championship.  By that time, Joe Paterno's teams had won two.

Penn State had the best and most explosive offense on the field that year.  But its offense was perhaps too explosive.  The problem was that the offense scored too quickly and wasn't on the field much.  The defense was on the field a lot, and was perceived to give up too many points.

Especially at Indiana.  Even though they were late touchdowns leading to a 35-29 score and meaningless.  Even if the winner of the game was never in doubt.  The week before, Penn State had beaten Ohio State resoundingly with a 63-14 score.

But after Indiana, Penn State was downgraded to #2.  And a certain number of Ohio sports writers appeared to have a lot to do with that.  Why?  We will never know for sure.

Had there been a BCS in 1994, Penn State would have played Nebraska for the national championship.   As it was,  Penn State was locked into the Rose Bowl contractually.

I have a vivid memory of sitting in a ballroom on New Year's Eve in downtown Los Angeles the night before Penn State was to play Oregon for the Rose Bowl.  We were watching the Orange Bowl.  We were all rooting for Miami for the first time in our collective Penn State fan lives.

Due to the way polls determined national champions, and due to the Big Ten tie-ins to the Rose Bowl that year, the only way #2 Penn State would gain even a share of the national championship was for Nebraska to lose and Penn State to win.

Nebraska won, and so did Penn State.  Dilemma unsolved!  Nebraska wound up the consensus #1 in the polls, Penn State #2.  Even though Penn State beat Oregon resoundingly and didn't lose a game all season.  In past years, when there were two undefeateds, there were two national champions.  Not in 1994.  Why?  To this day, I'm not sure. 

Rivalry, anyone?  My husband Terry has "hated" Nebraska ever since, even though when you really look at the situation, it had more to do with the media, and with the way national championships were determined, than it did with Nebraska football or its fans.

We had two good, clean games, in 2002 and 2003.  Penn State won at home, 40-7.  Nebraska won at home, 18-10.  No controversy at either.  But also no settling of those prior scores.   Well, maybe a little in 2002.  That blow-out win felt especially good.

So fast forward to Saturday's game at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.  A replay official viewing video evidence does not find sufficient evidence to overturn the errant call in the fourth quarter that gave a touchback to Nebraska rather than a touchdown to Penn State.

That replay official should have slowed down the video review to still shots or looked at both the Fox and ABC tapes available in the booth.  Some photos have since emerged, including one published on the front page of the sports section of the Omaha World-Herald,  that clearly show Matt Lehman breaking the plane on the goal line with full control of the ball. In fact, Tom Shatel of this newspaper has suggested that the "Crooked End Zone" at Memorial Stadium evens the score for the 1982 game.  You can read his article here.

No Tom.  Your 1994 national championship evened that score.  This errant call creates a new score to settle!

But back to the game.  With the score 27-23 in favor of Nebraska as a result of that call, rather than 30-27 in favor of Penn State, there was still plenty of time for Penn State to have another scoring run to widen the lead.  There was still plenty of time for a big defensive stop.

There were over seven minutes left in the game. 

Did the errant call matter?  Of course it did.  Perhaps it did.  Honestly I have no idea. There was too much time left.

I consider the defining moments of that game the first six minutes of the third quarter.  When Nebraska erased a 14-point deficit by scoring two touchdowns back-to-back very quickly.

Terry had turned to me at halftime and asked whom I thought would win.   The Penn State fans around us were confident that Penn State would win.  I wasn't so sure and neither was Terry.

I proposed that whichever team made the best second half adjustments would win.

So when Nebraska came out after the half, decimated our defense with its rush offense, and scored two touchdowns in the first six minutes of the third quarter, tying the game at 20-20, we knew it would be an uphill battle from then on.

Nebraska had made the best second half adjustments. 

Penn State's offense was still gaining ground and producing points (assuming the officials let them stick) but the defense did not seem to be able to stop the dual running threats of Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Ameer Abdullah.  They combined for a net total of 220 rushing yards in the game.

The crowd, which had been pretty silent in the first half, really woke up.

Perhaps it was where we were sitting, down low in the corner of the end zone, surrounded by mostly red.  Perhaps it was due to a couple of loud whistling Nebraska fans behind me.

But this was the noisiest environment I have been in for a very long time.  In fact, I can't recall any place noisier that wasn't Beaver Stadium.

The momentum in the second half had clearly shifted to Nebraska, and I don't think that a 30-27 score in favor of Penn State would have stopped Nebraska.  It would have just motivated them more. 

Unless that touchdown had the effect of shifting momentum back to Penn State and creating a spark for its defense to stop the run and quiet down that crowd, something they hadn't been able to do in the second half at all.

No, you can't blame the officials for Penn State's loss.  Not with that much time left.  However, what made this unusual was the fact that instant replay did not overturn the field officials' decision.  That the replay official found insufficient video evidence when others found plenty of sufficient video evidence.  It was one more thing that Penn State needed to overcome in a close contest and uphill battle in the second half.

There are some who would say that Big Ten officials are conspiring against Penn State to help them lose.  That the Big Ten might be embarrassed if Penn State under sanctions won too many games and so the officials have been somehow "briefed" to give Penn State opposing teams an advantage through unfair officiating.

I'm not ready to subscribe to any such conspiracy theory, even though at times I have wondered about some of the calls against Penn State, especially penalty calls that can't be reviewed.  I believe that the Big Ten officials are just trying to do their jobs, and that sometimes it's hard to see what really happened.

I know.  That play occurred right in front of us and we couldn't tell if Matt Lehman broke the plane with full control of the ball.  It was close.

But I do think that the Big Ten conference has to review what happened at this game and at others around the conference where the officiating this season appears to be worse than usual, even with instant replay.

As for the environment at Nebraska, let me just say this.

Thank you, Nebraska fans, for being so welcoming to Penn State fans. You far surpassed your own reputation as being the friendliest fans in college football.

Nebraska fans of all ages came up to us and greeted us.  Made sure we were having a good time.  Expressed sympathy for the players who are being subject to sanctions due to no fault of their own.  Expressed a sincere desire that we be treated well by everyone in Lincoln.  Told us they were praying for Penn State to overcome the disastrous circumstances of the last year.

One fan came up to Terry after the game and asked if he had a great time in Lincoln.  It was the wrong moment to ask such a question.  We had just lost the game.  Terry said no, why would he enjoy losing?

The fan seemed crestfallen, and went on to say that he had a great time at Beaver Stadium last year and hoped that the Nebraska fans had returned the favor.

Terry reassured him that the fans were great, and felt badly, as he should have, about his initial grumpiness.  Terry just hates to lose.

Can Penn State and Nebraska have an intense rivalry and yet have such great respect and friendliness towards each other?

Time will tell, but I for one am glad that Nebraska is on our schedule as an annual Big Ten contest.  Win or lose, it's always intense, and I suspect it will get more so over the coming years.