Failure to Launch: A Requiem for the Land Grant Rivalry

This piece originally appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of TOGA (The Obligatory Gridiron Annual) magazine as “Failure to Launch: A Requiem for the Land Grant Rivalry.”

For long-time fans who remember Penn State football’s roots as an Eastern independent, the program’s membership in the Big Ten probably still feels a little awkward. But 2017 marked the Nittany Lions’ 25th season of conference competition, meaning more than a full generation of Lions loyalists have grown up knowing nothing but the B1G for their beloved Blue and White. For most of that time, fans young and old could count on two things at season’s end: Michigan State and freezing cold. Starting last season and looking ahead, however, while the weather will be lousy as ever, the opponent will be different. Penn State’s annual season-ending matchup with the Spartans, which was conceived out of the evolving conference landscape, has now become a victim of it. The Nittany Lions have once again been called upon to manufacture a “rivalry,” this time (in something of a role reversal) to help hammer in the Big Ten’s latest square pegs via alternating home-and-home series with Rutgers and Maryland.

Yet through PSU’s first quarter-century of Big Ten participation, Sparty loomed as the final obstacle to overcome, a gatekeeper guarding the path toward regular season glory, bowl position, and occasionally, a conference championship. In spite of this seemingly prime position on each’s year slate, the series never managed to generate much enmity on either side. Over more than two decades, fans of both teams certainly grew accustomed to seeing one another at season’s end, but this familiarity never bred much in the way of contempt. Other opponents, notably Michigan and Ohio State, generated more publicity and hate, and neither teams’ players nor their fans ever circled late November on the calendar. Bona fide rivalries in college football are funny things, and if 21 season finales between Michigan State and Penn State can teach us anything, it’s that they cannot be engineered.

That did not stop legendary Spartans field general George Perles from trying. When Penn State was formally invited to join the Big Ten, the administration in East Lansing may have been leery (MSU was reportedly among the dissenters in an uncomfortable 7-3 vote), but Perles, the head coach and athletic director at his alma mater, had no such reservations. While many of his counterparts balked at the change, Perles sensed a chance to cut against the grain. PSU became the first new addition to the conference since Michigan State had joined in 1950, so perhaps there was some lingering sentiment for the new kid in the neighborhood. In any case, Perles knew that even after 40 years, his team struggled to escape the shadow of the Big Ten’s two dominant powers, and the arrival of the Nittany Lions presented a rare opportunity. He hoped for a rival that MSU could call its very own.

Michigan State’s fan base loathed Notre Dame and obsessed over beating their hated “big brother” Michigan, but nobody likes the Fighting Irish, and even intrastate acrimony was insufficient to distract Wolverines fans from the true apple of their ire: Ohio State. Perles recognized potential to break up the status quo by latching onto the powerful brand of Penn State, which had sterling pedigree yet no natural foil among its new conference counterparts. "He called me up and said, 'Hey, the Big Ten has one game that everybody has locked in at the end of the season,’” recalled Joe Paterno. “’Why don't we lock our game in?'” Paterno, for his part, was on board, and back in those days, that mutual understanding between two of the sport’s most influential names was more or less enough to seal the deal. The Nittany Lions played their first Big Ten slate in 1993, and from that year through the first decade of the 21st century, Penn State would finish out the year by facing the Green and White.

The series was briefly derailed by realignment after Nebraska’s arrival prompted the Big Ten’s split into divisions, with Penn State and Michigan State sorted into opposite camps and Wisconsin inserted as the annual year-end opponent. It is another story for a different time, but pairing the Badgers and Lions probably made more sense and left open the possibility of a genuinely antagonistic relationship developing over time. Regardless, that arrangement lasted only three seasons (2011-13) before the latest reshuffling, prompted by the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, reunited the Spartans and Lions in the Big Ten East.

Maybe one reason that the series never perpetuated much genuine hatred or resentment was the relative lack of drama.

The all-time record between the two programs, dating back to their first meeting in 1914, advantages Michigan State by a score of 16-15-1, but Penn State has a 14-8 advantage in the Big Ten era. The teams finished within a touchdown of each other in only eight of the 21 games played in the season-ending series, with Penn State holding a 5-3 edge in these (I probably don’t need to remind you that last year’s outcome was decided by a field goal). The Nittany Lions claimed the widest margin of victory in the series (54 points in 2002) as well as the narrowest (a 38-37 win in 1993). What’s more, neither team frequently encountered the other at its best. Michigan State assembled some of its strongest teams during Penn State’s so-called Dark Years (2000-04) and sanctions era (2012-15), and PSU has throttled many forgettable editions of the Spartans. Though the sort of bad blood that fuels the nation’s most intense rivalries never developed, Penn State did emerge as something of an impediment to its assigned counterpart. A sixth win and bowl eligibility were on the line for Michigan State four times during the series (1994, 2000, 2004, and 2005), and in each case, the Nittany Lions kept Sparty home for the holidays.

Of course, no discussion of the Penn State-Michigan State series would be complete without mention of the infamous Land Grant Trophy, that much-maligned totem whose deserved reputation as one of the ugliest and most ridiculous trophies in sports has grown exponentially in the age of the internet meme. The initial thinking behind it was sound enough: On July 2, 1862, President Lincoln signed the Morrill Land Grant Act into law “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” What followed was a revolution in higher education resulting in the rise of the modern research university, a crucial driver of America’s global influence. Michigan State was founded just 10 days ahead of Penn State in 1855, and the two schools went on to become the very first, and remain among the preeminent, land grant institutions in the country. A clever nod to this shared history seemed a natural fit, and it only made sense that an accompanying trophy would help cement this newly-invented rivalry.

Sadly, on the journey from concept to execution, the wheels came off. Although inspired by one of the most critical turning points in the social and economic history of our nation, the trophy itself is noteworthy only for its inelegance. The absurd monstrosity resembles nothing so much as a middle school woodshop project gone horribly wrong. In a venerable conference known for celebrating the annual installments of century-old grudge matches with some of college football’s most iconic prizes (think: The Old Oaken Bucket, Little Brown Jug, Paul Bunyan’s Ax, etc.), the preposterous Land Grand Trophy is a fitting metaphor for a manufactured facsimile of these born out of conference expansion.

Like its signature trophy, the “rivalry” between the two schools proved better in theory than practice. In many ways, the idea was probably doomed from the start, especially for Big Ten country. Perles listed competing with deer hunting season among his goals in establishing the annual meeting between the teams, indicative of its place in the pecking order from the very first. Frequently, the year-end mandate also placed the game on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, compelling students to choose between a long weekend at home and a frozen afternoon rooting against their fourth- or fifth-most reviled opponent.

At its inception, George and Joe envisioned a plan that might upset the Big Ten apple cart and challenge the smothering dominance of its two reigning powers. Obviously, it never achieved these heights. The teams will continue to face off annually as divisional foes (at least until the next round of Power Five musical chairs), but the special spot reserved at the end of the queue is a thing of the past. Going forward, Penn State-Michigan State will be nothing more than just another game on the schedule, though perhaps that’s all it ever was. If anything can be said of the Land Grant Rivalry as we mark its passing, it is this: The Nittany Lions and Spartans had to play someone at the end of every season, and they did.

Five Most Meaningful Games of the Season-Ending Series with Michigan State: Most installments of the manufactured Land Grant Rivalry were not particularly close; the series was marked with far more blowouts than four-quarter games. However, its guaranteed spot at the end of the schedule brought postseason implications for both participants, meaning the outcome was often meaningful, if rarely (in retrospect) in doubt.

1. November 19, 2005 - Penn State 31, Michigan State 22: Coming off a 4-7 season in 2004, the program’s fourth in five years, the 2005 Nittany Lions made magic with a lethal combo of senior leadership and freshman speed. JoePa’s comeback squad entered their final game at 9-1, with a conference title and BCS bowl at stake. There were sexier games than 5-5 Michigan State’s home finale happening elsewhere in the country, but perhaps no bigger story than Penn State and its legendary coach seeking to complete their one-year turnaround from irrelevant afterthought to Big Ten champs. So College GameDay came to East Lansing in anticipation of a triumphant final chapter.

Penn State took a little while to oblige, with early, uncharacteristic miscues plaguing what had evolved into one of the nation’s best teams. Ultimately, however, Michael Robinson and Co. were not to be denied their prize. When nickel DB Donnie Johnson recovered fullback Matt Hahn’s punt block in the end zone for a score, momentum finally shifted decisively in favor of the Blue and White. A special group that had carried the program back in from the wilderness ended the journey by celebrating a Big Ten Championship with their fans, bringing closure to one of the most memorable and meaningful Autumns in Old State’s storied history.

2. November 26, 2016 – Penn state 45, Michigan State 12: One signature moment defines the importance of this victory: The steadily-intensifying roar that rolled through Beaver Stadium early in the first quarter as Ohio State finalized its overtime win against Michigan. The Buckeyes’ victory meant Penn State was playing for a spot in the Big Ten championship game. Like their brethren from 2005, the 2016 Nittany Lions defied preseason expectations in climbing into conference title contention, and like the ’05 team, they initially struggled to seal the deal against Michigan State. With his team trailing 12-10 early in the second half, Trace McSorley found star receiver Chris Godwin for a 35-yard score, and the Lions never looked back.

Penn State continued its aggressive attack late into the fourth quarter, piling up points long after the final outcome was no longer in doubt, perhaps in response to similar treatment from Sparty the year before. MSU head man Mark Dantonio called it for what it was: “Payback.” Coach Franklin’s squad reminded onlookers what they say about payback, and in the process earned a trip to Indianapolis, where they would score a thrilling win over Wisconsin to claim the conference crown. No recency bias at work here. Penn State’s resurgent season paired with Ohio State’s dramatic victory putting a division title on the line with the game already in progress make the finale of this series originated by Perles and Paterno among its most memorable.

3. November 27, 1993 – Penn State 38, Michigan State 37: Over the 21 season-ending tilts between Penn State and MSU, both schools won their games by an average of over 19 points. That the first and final games of that long span both make this top five speaks to the amount of “meh” sandwiched between them. But when the Lions and Spartans first clashed as conference foes, the wild, back-and-forth contest hinted at a promise that never really materialized thereafter. Although the seesaw nature of the scoring turned out to be an aberration for the series, the weather conditions did not. Hours before game time, the unrelenting AstroTurf of Spartan Stadium was frozen solid, and only a combination of nitrogen and direct Sun managed a relative thaw for kick off. Winter’s chill would become a familiar hallmark of these games, and in 1993, it left a fast track for a Lions offense on the cusp of becoming one of the best in college football history the following year.

Indeed, there were plenty of opportunities for Kerry Collins, Bobby Engram, and Kyle Brady to shine (Mike Archie subbed for the injured running back Ki-jana Carter). After surrendering more points than they had all year, the Nittany Lions trailed 37-17 in the second half, but then came roaring back. When a one-play, 52-yard scoring strike from Collins to Engram capped off an outburst that saw PSU score three times in under five minutes of game time, the Lions held a 38-37 lead early in the fourth quarter. The defense, despite a shaky outing overall, was, in classic Penn State style, opportunistic and aggressive when it mattered most. Penn State defenders smothered the home team for the remaining 11:42, with three of the team’s four sacks on the day coming on Michigan State’s desperate final drive. After Spartan QB Jim Miller’s last-gasp pass fell incomplete on fourth down, the Nittany Lions escaped with a one-point comeback victory to finish 6-2 in their inaugural Big Ten season.

4. November 23, 2002 – Penn State 61, Michigan State 7: Penn State’s widest-ever margin of victory over the Spartans came in this demolition of an overmatched, dispirited foe. Such a drama-free steamrolling makes the list for one very important reason: “2K for LJ.” The 2002 season offered temporary respite from the half-decade of losing that haunted Lions fans from 2000 through 2004 due largely to the unparalleled performance of senior tailback Larry Johnson, who churned out the greatest single-year output in program history. Sparty limped into Beaver Stadium at 4-7 to face a Penn State team looking for its ninth win of the year (after winning 10 over the previous two combined), but almost all of the attention focused on Johnson.

Finally the featured back in his last year of eligibility, LJ had piled up yardage at an unprecedented rate. With blockbuster outings against Northwestern, where his 257 rushing yards set the Penn State single-game mark, and Indiana, victimized for 327 yards that shattered the record set only a month earlier, Larry Johnson had positioned himself to join the elite club of single-season 2,000-yard backs. He entered the game needing 264 more yards to become only the ninth player to achieve that rare feat. Only 23 shy of the finish line, Larry ended his quest for 2,000 with flair, taking a toss play 40 yards for his fourth TD of the day. After celebrating with his linemen in the end zone, he headed to the sidelines to embrace his dad, Penn State’s beloved defensive line coach Larry Johnson, Sr.

5. November 22, 2008 – Penn State 49, Michigan State 18: George Perles had imagined season-ending battles for the conference championship when he’d partnered up with Penn State, and 15 years (and five MSU coaching changes) later, it came to be. PSU was 10-1, needing only to hold serve to secure a trip to Pasadena. Michigan State needed to pull off the road upset and then hope for struggling Michigan to topple Ohio State, an unlikely combo that would send Sparty to the Rose Bowl. The Nittany Lions, still hung over from the heart-breaking loss to Iowa two weeks prior that had ended their national championship dreams, were not about to surrender the Big Ten crown at home. Snowflakes curled down on the chilly, late-November winds, adding a festive note to the affair, which was dominated by junior signal-caller Daryll Clark and Penn State’s explosive “Spread HD” offense.

Three years earlier, then-freshman wideouts Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, and Jordan Norwood had powered the Lions back to prominence. They spent their final moments in Beaver Stadium as Penn State football players in a post-game celebration of the team’s second Big Ten title in four seasons. What transpired just before, however, may be the game’s most lasting memory. Few fans in attendance that frigid afternoon will forget sore loser Mark Dantonio shamefully using up his allotted timeouts in the game’s closing seconds to keep them shivering in their seats as long as possible.

Three to Forget: The Spartans enjoyed precious little success inside Beaver Stadium, but did manage some decisive wins on their home field, including these three disastrous outings for Penn State.

November 29, 1997 - Michigan State 49, Penn State 14: A team that began the season ranked number one by Sports Illustrated ended it by allowing two Spartan rushers to gain over 200 yards a piece as Nick Saban’s team embarrassed the Nittany Lions.

November 22, 2003 – Michigan State 41, Penn State 10: The worst Penn State team of the last 75 years ended their miserable season with a 31-point thrashing in East Lansing that was not as close as the final score suggests.

November 28, 2015 - Michigan State 55, Penn State 16: The sixth-ranked Spartans earned their widest margin of victory in the series against a sanctions-depleted Penn State, adding insult to injury with a classless nine-yard scoring run by center Jack Allen late in the game.

Chris Buchignani is a co-host of The Obligatory PSU Pregame Show and The Obligatory PSU Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @buchignani

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