In the fourth and final installment of A Look Back revisits weeks 13-16 of the college football season. In this segment, I witness a pair of classic rivalries: Harvard vs. Yale and Army vs. Navy. In between, I see the final home came for the Penn State seniors who were freshmen when the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal broke, and I travel to the rustbelt town of Alliance, Ohio to explore the most dominant division 3 program in the country. While I only saw one top-25 division 1 team during this stretch – Michigan State – the final four weeks featured a slate of games that harkened back to the timeless nature of the sport. At the Army-Navy game, Army did not complete their first forward pass until late in the fourth quarter, but the lack of offense did little to quiet the crowd. At Penn State, the overmatched Nittany Lions played in front of a half empty stadium, but at the game’s conclusion, the entire senior class remained to sing the alma mater with a team that had endured so much. More than football, the final four weeks offered a portrait of camaraderie, companionship, and the importance of tradition. Driving home from Baltimore after the Army-Navy game, I could not remember any particular plays from the game, but the sight of 8,000 Cadets and Midshipmen swaying back and forth, arm in arm as they sang each other’s alma mater is one that will stay with me forever.
Week 13 – Harvard 31, Yale 24: While most of the college football world was gearing up for the final push for the playoff, I returned to New England for a matchup between two national powers of yesteryear. For the first five decades of college football, Harvard and Yale were firmly entrenched in the upper echelon of the sport. Between 1872 and 1927, Yale and Harvard combined to win 34 national championships – although in those days, there was no title game so news outlets often awarded national championships to different schools. Yale players won two of the first three Heisman Trophies. When the Yale Bowl was constructed in 1913, it became the largest stadium in the world, seating over 70,000 people.
Today, the Harvard-Yale game is irrelevant to the national rankings – the Ivy League does not participate in postseason play. Every other Saturday of the year, the stadiums in New Haven and Cambridge sit largely empty – the vacant seats serving as reminders of the programs’ fall from their illustrious past.
Like Williams-Amherst, most of the students and alumni at Harvard and Yale are not truly football fans. These are businessmen and academics masquerading as sports fans, elite students swept up in the fervor and turned into diehards. At the tailgates, you don’t see jerseys and baseball hats. You see Barbour jackets and striped scarves. Conversations center on old memories and life updates rather than anticipation for the game.
Harvard-Yale is less a game than an institution. When students and alumni refer to Harvard-Yale, they describe a day more than a game. For them, the tailgates and parties that are associated with Harvard-Yale are a chance to come together and unapologetically take pride in their school. Many people participate in the day’s events without ever making it into the stadium. Even for those who do go to the game, the result will have little impact on their evening.
This year’s game, however, had extra football-related significance. Harvard entered the game a perfect 9-0, looking to secure the program’s 17th undefeated season. Yale came in at 8-1 and was a win away from forcing a three-way tie for the Ivy League title. More important for Yale fans, a win over Harvard would snap a 7-game losing streak against their rivals.
Through the first three quarters, it looked as though Harvard had the game well in hand. The Crimson scored three third-quarter touchdowns, including a 90-yard pick-six late in the quarter, to take a 24-7 lead heading into the fourth.
Yale, however, would not go away. The Bulldogs scored on their next two possessions, cutting the Harvard lead to 3. With just under four minutes to go, Yale tied the game on a 33-yard field goal.
The crowd, which had remained calm for most of the first half, began to come to life as the game intensified. At one point Harvard students began chanting “safety school.” Shortly after that, before the start of the fourth quarter, the Yale student body inexplicably responded by stripping down to their underwear and mooning the Harvard students.
For someone who has spent a lot of time at the more professionalized stadiums of college football, I found the unpolished, collegial nature of the crowd invigorating. At many of the places I’d been, stadium officials dictated the in-game atmosphere. Piped-in music and jumbotrons with messages of “Get Loud” or “Make Some Noise” told fans how to feel and how to act. At these places there is little room for spontaneity. But, at Harvard-Yale, a place where many of the fans only care about their team on one day a year, the fans are more than observers to the rivalry – they are an active part of it.
With just under a minute to play, Harvard’s Andrew Fischer hauled in his second touchdown grab of the day to give the Crimson a 31-24 lead. Yale tried valiantly to claw back in the game one more time, but their drive stalled on the Harvard 26-yard-line.
As time expired, fans started pouring out of the stands. Ten minutes after the game, the field had become a giant party. In some ways, the party was for the win, but in many ways it was less about the team than it was about the school. Football was an excuse to leave the library, to come together, and to celebrate a shared experience.
Week 14 – Michigan State 34, Penn State 10: After a few days at home to celebrate Thanksgiving, I returned to the road for the final day of the regular season. For most, the games to see that week were in the south: Georgia vs. Georgia Tech, Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State, Alabama vs. Auburn. Instead of venturing to one of those games, I went to a place emerging from controversy and striving to regain normalcy.
Three years ago, on November 4, 2011, the release of a grand jury report about a child sexual abuse scandal involving former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky rocked the Penn State community. Within days of the report’s release, the university’s President Graham Spanier and long-time Head Coach Joe Paterno were fired. Paterno passed away a few months later. For weeks, the school became the epicenter of the 24/7 news cycle. Reporters interviewed students on their way to class, cameramen filmed live updates outside of practices, and pundits wrote freely about the woes of State College.
Eight months later, the NCAA announced a series of crippling sanctions against the football program, including a four-year bowl ban, a severe reduction in scholarship spots, and a $60 million fine. In leveling the punishment, NCAA President Mark Emmert attacked not just the individuals directly tied to the Sandusky case but the entire Penn State culture, describing the goal of the sanctions as “not to be just punitive but to make sure that the university establishes an athletic culture and daily mindset in which football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing, and protecting young people.”
For the first few games of 2012, college football fans watched Penn State games – they wanted to see how such a proud program with such a rich history would respond. Everything from the school’s alma mater to the statue of Joe Paterno outside the stadium and the names on the back of the jerseys seemed to be contentious. But, slowly the focus shifted elsewhere, and Penn State was left behind.
Saturday’s game against Michigan State was the final home game for the seniors who were freshmen when the scandal broke. While much was rightly written about the sacrifices the football team made, these students were also forced to pay the price for the sins of the university’s former leadership. Throughout their first year, they had to hear reports from around the nation about how terrible Penn State was. They were stopped for interviews on their way to class and forced to defend a place they were just getting to know. Even the innocent act of celebrating their team at a football game became the subject of national criticism.
This year, Penn State began the year with a promising 4-0 record, but four straight losses, including a heartbreaking double overtime defeat against #13 Ohio State, left the Nittany Lion faithful looking towards next year. After a pair of wins to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2011 (the NCAA removed the bowl ban in September this year), Penn State lost 16-14 to lowly Illinois. Entering the Michigan State game, most people gave Penn State little hope of victory. Many students decided to stay home for Thanksgiving rather than trek back for the game, and huge swaths of the stadium remained empty.
Michigan State, who was in the process of wrapping up another strong season, wasted little time in asserting control of the game. The Spartans ran the opening kickoff back for a touchdown and then added a pair of field goals to take a 13-0 lead by the end of the first quarter. Penn State added a field goal late in the half to cut the lead to 13-3, but back-to-back touchdowns on Michigan State’s first two drives of the second half put the game out of reach.
By the time the clock wound down to zero the stadium was more than half empty. The only section that remained was the part of the student section dedicated to seniors. In many ways this was their game. Over the past three years, they helped see the campus through its darkest hour. Through their achievement in the classroom and their commitment to the community, they showed that Penn State is a place worthy of celebration.
Penn State rallied from a 14-point deficit against Boston College to win the Pinstripe Bowl 31-30 in overtime. Michigan State narrowly missed out on the college football playoff and instead made the most of their matchup with #5 Baylor in the Cotton Bowl. Down 41-21 entering the fourth quarter, the Spartans scored three straight touchdowns – the final TD coming with just 17 seconds remaining – en route to a 42-41 victory.
Week 15 – Mount Union 36, John Carroll 28: From State College, I travelled west through coal and steel country to Ohio. My destination was Alliance – a northeast Ohio town in heart of the rustbelt. Once a bustling metropolis of 30-40,000, downtown Alliance now sits largely vacant – the town reduced to half its former size.
The bright spot in Alliance is the emergence of the football team. Over the past two decades no team has enjoyed as much success as the Mount Union Purple Raiders. Since 1991, the team has advanced to the Division 3 National Quarterfinals every year, played in 17 championship games, and won 11 national championships. When I mentioned I was going to Mount Union, football fans around the country replied with, “oh, that’s the division 3 powerhouse, right?”
2014 for Mount Union was no different. The Purple Raiders went undefeated during the regular season, winning their ten games by an average of 53 points per game. In the first two rounds of the postseason, Mount Union won 63-3 and 67-0.
In some respects the Mount Union faithful are not dissimilar from those in Alabama. The team has a difficult time convincing fans to stay past halftime because they are so used to winning. Many students don’t bother to show up until the playoffs and many locals begin grumbling early in the season if the blowout wins don’t look convincing enough. Fans plan vacations in advance around the national championship game in Virginia and many have started to follow Wisconsin-Whitewater games early in the year in anticipation of meeting them for the national championship. This year was the ninth time in the past ten years that the two schools have met for the title.
While I found that expectation of success off-putting in Alabama, I was more drawn to the people of Ohio. The story of this part of the country is one of decline and nostalgia – always looking towards what used to be. Football offers reason to celebrate the present and hope for the future. The football program at Alabama could best be characterized by excess, but the one at Mount Union matches the old school nature of the town. The people in Alliance aren’t in an arm’s race to build bigger, more elaborate frat houses, they are trying to hold onto the crumbling houses they’ve got.
On Saturday, Mount Union faced off against conference rival John Carroll. The Purple Raiders jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead, but the visitors fought back. Midway through the second quarter, John Carroll tied the game at 14-14. The two teams traded touchdowns near the end of the half before Mount Union took control with a go-ahead touchdown with 1:24 left in the half. A safety and another Purple Raider touchdown extended the lead to 36-21, and John Carroll’s comeback bid fell short.
The next week in the national semifinals, Mount Union scored four touchdowns in first quarter followed by four more in the second quarter to stake a 56-0 lead going into halftime against #4 Wesley. The Purple Raiders scored two more touchdowns in the third to go up 70-0 before Wesley got on the board with three fourth quarter scores to make the final score look somewhat reasonable.
The national championship rematch against Wisconsin-Whitewater did not go quite as smoothly. Mount Union rallied from a 30-14 halftime deficit to take a 31-30 lead midway through the third quarter, but Whitewater was too strong down the stretch. The 43-34 loss marked the fifth time in the last six years that Mount Union has had to watch as Whitewater celebrates a championship.
Week 16 – Navy 17, Army 10: I concluded my trip with one of the game’s oldest and most storied rivalries. Like Harvard-Yale, the Army vs. Navy game used to be a clash of titans – a matchup with ramifications for the national championship. Today, the game’s football-based relevance has decreased. Army entered the game at 4-7 in the midst of their fourth straight losing season and 17th in their last 18 seasons. Though Navy has enjoyed significantly more success, no one would confuse their 6-5 record with that of a national contender.
But for cadets and midshipmen, the game could not be bigger. First-year students at each academy, known as plebes, are not allowed to talk to anyone outside of their class while walking around campus. The one thing they are allowed to say is ‘Beat Army’ or ‘Beat Navy.’ Those refrains are rallying cries at their respective schools, calls that urge each student to work harder, do better, and unite more fully with their own. The teams could be 0-11 going into the game, and people would still care – not in the ESPN hype video way but in the can’t-sleep with excitement way. It truly is a one game season.
While the rest of the country entered the holiday lull before bowl season, Army and Navy met in Baltimore for the final game of the division 1 regular season. The game itself was largely uneventful – a throwback to an era of three-yard runs and fullback dives. Army didn’t complete their first pass until there was less than four minutes to go in the game. But the passion of the crowd never waned.
The cadets and midshipmen, clothed in their dress uniforms, cheered each play as though the season depended on it. At one point, during a stoppage in play in the fourth quarter, both student sections began jumping around as a song played over the loudspeakers. Their enthusiasm was such that everyone in the stadium turned and watched with mouths open.
In the end, Navy used a 17-0 run in the middle of the game to overcome an early 7-0 deficit and claim their 13th straight victory in the rivalry. The Midshipmen went on to defeat San Diego State 17-16 on a late field goal in the Poinsetta Bowl, but a bowl win palls in comparison to the win over Army in Baltimore.