Nittany Lions Earning Respect

A win over Michigan State would secure a Big Ten title few believed possible to start the season. But Alan Zemaitis and company know they better bring their best game to East Lansing if they hope to come home with the hardware.

A few weeks before the season began, Penn State’s football captains flew to Chicago for the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon. It was there that they realized just how far the Nittany Lions had drifted from the national spotlight.

Penn State was absent from the list of preseason favorites compiled by media attendees, and no Nittany Lions were picked to win the offensive and defensive player of the year awards. Moreover, players sensed a dismissive tone in the questions they were asked. Paul Posluszny overheard Michael Robinson being asked about the Lions’ upcoming game against Illinois and whether it would be one of the team’s biggest games of the year. The unspoken implication was that the Lions and Illini were comparable programs. “That,” said the junior linebacker, “was difficult to hear.”

“They were basically laughing at us,” Robinson added.

If the Nittany Lions sensed ambivalence, it was at least partly due to Joe Paterno’s decision to skip the first day of the two-day event to be with his ailing wife, Sue. But it also had its roots in the team’s recent history, which included a 4-7 finish in 2004. Worse than any of the slights they received in Chicago was the realization that the disrespect was largely deserved.

“We didn’t have anything to hang our hats on,” cornerback Alan Zemaitis said. “We were Penn State, but we hadn’t done nothing. Why did we want people to come up to us and kiss our butts? Because we got four wins? We went there and knew it was going to be a little desperate. But that was OK, because we weren’t there to make friends.” 

Nearly four months have passed since the Kickoff Luncheon. With the Big Ten season set to conclude Saturday, the Lions have proved their doubters wrong. Posluszny is a strong candidate for the league’s defensive player of the year honor, Robinson can make a case for the offensive MVP award, and the team can clinch at least a share of the conference championship with one more victory.

Getting that win — which would keep the Lions one step ahead of the Michigan-Ohio State winner in the race for the league automatic BCS bid — may not be as easy as the standings would lead one to believe.

Michigan State has been a flop in the Big Ten, winning only twice in seven games. The Spartans never quite recovered from their game at Ohio State, in which the Buckeyes returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown late in the first half, igniting a rally that would lead to a 35-24 victory.

But Michigan State did beat Notre Dame in South Bend and took Michigan to overtime. Quarterback Drew Stanton is second in the Big Ten in passing yards and pass efficiency, and he’s adept at using the Spartans’ spread offense to attack defenses downfield.

The Lions are wary.

“On any given day, Michigan State can beat anyone in the conference,” Posluszny said. “It hasn’t worked out that way, but they definitely have that ability.”

The Spartans, who lead the league in total offense with an average of 501 yards a game, will be playing for bowl eligibility on Saturday. In addition, they are saying goodbye to a dozen seniors. Coach John L. Smith is hoping the combination brings out his team’s best. Penn State is anticipating just that. Said Posluszny: “This is a huge game for them as well as for us. I know they’re going to give us their best shot.”

The rivalry between Penn State and Michigan State has always seemed more manufactured than organic, a product of boardroom politicking, not any shared history between the teams and their fans. It’s not Michigan-Ohio State. It’s not Alabama-Auburn or USC-UCLA or Miami-Florida State. Even though there’s a trophy at stake, players don’t regard this game the way they do other matchups on the schedule.

“If I were a fan looking at it, it probably wouldn’t be close to the top 10,” Zemaitis said. “Michigan State and Penn State, I never really considered that a rivalry. The team that we get hyped for and get the most crazy about is O-State. Personally, that would be my rival. And I think a lot of guys would share in that.”

Still, the Spartans are the only team standing in Penn State’s way as it seeks its second Big Ten championship in 13 years as a conference member. That makes this a big game.

And then there’s the Land Grant Trophy. The Lions will have to cart it to East Lansing with them this weekend, having won it last year with their 37-13 victory over the Spartans in Beaver Stadium. The LGT is a sight to behold, a block of seemingly petrified wood with appendages jutting out haphazardly from its massive trunk. But unlike, say, the Little Brown Jug or Floyd of Rosedale, the LGT doesn’t inspire great passion. 

“We don’t think about it too much,” Zemaitis said. “We look at it as some hardware we need to get back in our house. We collected that bell from Minnesota. The Land Grant Trophy, we got that last year and now we want to keep it in our house. Any hardware that’s out there that we can get, we’re trying to get.”


The Nittany Lions are going bowling this year. Want to be a part of the Fight On State bowl package, where you will receive the most travel bang for your buck and have a chance to spend time with folks from the best Penn State site on the Internet?


Fight On State Top Stories