Monday, October 10, 2005
Back at home
“Michael,” no one has recently said to me, “you’re the Paterno Family Professor in Literature at Penn State and yet you never blog about college football. Why is that? Is there a clause about this in your contract somewhere?”
No, there are no clauses in my contract—it’s just that I know relatively little about college football and do not want to embarrass myself or anyone else at Penn State by suggesting that USC is overrated or that Virginia Tech should run more play actions from a broken-I formation or that the way to contain the Longhorns is to present them with eight defensive backs and blitz, blitz, blitz. You’ll not hear such things from me, I assure you.
But I will admit that over the past four years, I have heard a rumor or two about Penn State football. A small but vocal chorus of critics across the country has pointed out that Penn State has fallen on hard times of late, and that these hard times just happen to coincide with my arrival here in 2001. I’ve argued time and again that (a) we actually had a good year in 2002, except for some very strange officiating in Ann Arbor, which I’ll get back to later in this post, (b) our defense has never wavered all this time—it’s just been a question of getting some speed and power in the offense now that we no longer have a Larry Johnson-like back in the backfield, and (c) it is not customary to blame literature professors for a football team’s performance. But do these critics listen? No, they do not listen. “Bérubé must go,” they say, fingers in ears.
So I hope you all were paying attention this weekend. Penn State is now ranked eighth in the nation, having beaten sixth-ranked Ohio State 17-10 this past Saturday. On ESPN, in prime time. And together with 109,867 of our fellow humans, Janet and I were at the game.
More specifically, we had a pair of seats in the President’s Suite. No, we don’t do this kind of thing very often. This was our first-ever invitation to the President’s Suite. The invite (from President Spanier’s office) arrived about six weeks ago, and when I opened it, I thought, hey, Ohio State, October 8! Hmmm—that might be fun, but jeez, we’re going to be overmatched. Over the first three weeks, as Penn State went 3-0 against various Piñata State teams while the Buckeyes lost a heartbreaker to Texas, I didn’t see much reason to revise that assessment, though our flashy freshmen, Justin King and Derrick Williams, did seem like exciting players to watch. Then we pulled off a comeback against Northwestern; down 23-7, we rallied for a 34-29 victory on Michael Robinson’s last-minute pass to Williams (on a drive that started with a 4th-and-15 deep in our own zone). “Yeah, but that was Northwestern,” people said. “All you did was prove you could beat a weak team despite turning the ball over fifteen times (or thereabouts) in the first half.” Northwestern bounced back from that defeat (and a bye week) to win a shootout with Wisconsin this weekend, 51-48, in a game played with a live pig instead of a traditional football. But of course, no one could know that then, so we didn’t get credit for beating a decent team.
And then last week, back home in State College, the Nittany Lions ran for over three thousand yards (or thereabouts) against then-number-18 Minnesota, en route to a 44-14 trouncing of the lusterless Golden Gophers. I watched the second half on TV, and after we went up 27-7 early in the third quarter, the announcers suggested that we should start thinking about putting together a long, ball-control drive that would eat up the clock. Eat up the clock? That’s for wusses! We control the ball by running options and reverses for twenty, twenty-five yards at a clip, folks. So we scored again three minutes later. Speed kills! It’s so true. By the time that weekend was over, we were number 16 in the AP poll, and the pregame excitement for Ohio State began last Monday morning. On Tuesday, when ESPN announced that GameDay would be coming to our happy little valley, people began to run madly in circles until their heads exploded. Hundreds of students camped out in tents outside Beaver Stadium, creating what became known as Paternoville. Home jerseys flew off the racks at the local clothing stores. It was really cool, not least because no one took any of it for granted: yes, I was told, this kind of thing used to happen around here all the time, but back in those days, everyone associated with Penn State simply assumed it was their birthright. This time, it was tinged with all kinds of anticipation—and some worry: no one (either on ESPN or anywhere else) picked us to win this game. By Saturday afternoon, the smart money was saying that the Nittany Lions would lose a close one.
But now Janet and I had skybox seats in the President’s Suite for the biggest home game in six years, not to mention invitations to the pre-game President’s tailgate, which began three hours before kickoff, at 4:45. Janet hired someone to hang out with Jamie for the evening (he doesn’t really have “babysitters” anymore); she arrived at 4, and we left the house at . . . 5. One of us was ready to leave at 4, and one of us was ready at 5. Suffice it to say that in some respects we are a traditionally gendered household.
As a result, we got to the tailgate a bit late, and learned that we were seated at a table that included (alongside a few of our faculty colleagues) NCAA president Myles Brand, his senior assistant Wally Renfro, and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. At the next table were Ed Rendell and his wife Midge, as well as Cynthia Baldwin, chair of Penn State’s Board of Trustees, and her husband Art. In the course of the evening we spoke briefly to Brand, Renfro, and Rendell; on the shuttle bus after the game, Ms. Baldwin talked to us about her English M.A. thesis on the fiction of W. E. B. DuBois. You know, just your average football weekend in a college town.
Two things about the skyboxes: one, it is true that watching the game from a box is like being at the game at one remove. We’ve been in the stands and in the boxes, and the stands are certainly more intense. (In fact, the first game Janet and I attended just happened to be the October 27, 2001 comeback victory over Ohio State in which Joe Paterno passed Bear Bryant’s record for wins (323) by a Division-I coach. Note to interested Penn State readers: the Nittany Lions are now 2-0 in home games against the Buckeyes when Janet and I attend the game.) But two, it is not true that people in the boxes spend their time chatting and hobnobbing. Not on a night like this. On the contrary, everyone was intent on the game from the kickoff to the seal-the-deal sack by Tamba Hali with just over a minute to play. The people around me (including me!) groaned mightily at Jeremy Kapinos’ opening punt of eleven yards (yes, you read that right), which set up Ohio State’s field goal, and we screamed at Calvin Lowry for failing to field an Ohio State punt a bit later on, even if only to call for a fair catch (it took a Buckeye bounce and wound up as a 60-yard kick). But a few minutes later, when Lowry intercepted a pass in Ohio State territory and ran it back to the Buckeye one-yard line, we decided to forgive him. By that point we were up 7-3, thanks not only to the speed of Robinson and Williams (who scampered 11 yards for the touchdown), but also to Joe Pa’s decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 from the Ohio State 35.
The second half was less than pretty. After regaining a seven-point lead on Kevin Kelley’s 41-yard field goal, the Lions basically decided to go to the run-run-scramble-punt offense the rest of the way, betting that our defensive speed and savvy would chase the Buckeyes all over the field and shut them down. This turned out to be a good bet, but it had the effect of muting the crowd somewhat; at one point, in fact, people booed the offense as they left the field after another three-and-out. What in the world was that? “You’re 5-0 and up by seven against the number six team in the country with eight minutes to play,” I pointed out to the assembled 110,000. “You really shouldn’t boo the blue team under these circumstances.” “Sorry about that,” replied the 110,000. “We’re just nervous. You’re right, we’ll chant DEE-fense instead.” They really were nervous, not least because of that well-known law of football physics: the team whose offense fails to pick up a first down for the final twenty minutes of play and whose defense yields a tying touchdown in the final minutes invariably loses in overtime. But on this damp and raw Saturday night, there would be no tying touchdown, and there would be no overtime. And just like that, I’m teaching at a school whose football team is in the top ten, and chatting with the chair of the Board of Trustees about W. E. B. DuBois on the way back from the game. Congrats to the whole team, and especially to the truly tenacious D, led this time by linebacker Paul Posluszny—who had fourteen tackles and a sack, and who covered so much lateral ground that on a couple of plays, I wondered whether Penn State was playing two or three guys with the number 31.
Next week we play Michigan at Michigan. Now, last time Penn State visited the Big House, two funny things happened. First, near the end of the third quarter, James Millon tipped a Michigan punt and then tipped over the punter. Keen-eyed Big Ten officials saw the second tip but not the first (though both were clear as day on replay), and as a result, Penn State did not get the ball at midfield with a six-point lead, but, rather, was hit with a roughing-the-kicker penalty that gave the ball back to the Wolverines so that they could come down the field and score to go up 14-13. Ah, but Penn State kept fighting back, and with forty seconds to play and the score tied at 21, Zack Mills threw a pass that receiver Tony Johnson caught at the Michigan 22. Now, you all probably know that in college ball, a receiver needs only to have one foot in bounds in order to make the catch. Tony Johnson went up for the ball, and his first foot came down in bounds. Then his second foot also came down in bounds. Actually, his second foot came down about six or seven inches from the sideline. It wasn’t even close, and it couldn’t have been any less ambiguous if Johnson had also landed with both elbows in bounds and had begun to draw circles in the grass with them. But this was in Ann Arbor, where officials sometimes see things differently than you or I might, and Johnson was ruled out of bounds. We lost 27-24 in overtime.
In other words, we wuz robbed, robbed in broad daylight. And I don’t imagine that anyone around here has forgotten about it. So next week should be just as interesting as this week was.