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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.

 

IMG_3111Week 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.

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IMG_3171Saturday was a big day in college football. In Mississippi, Ole Miss knocked off fourth-ranked Mississippi State. In Ohio, Florida, and Oregon, a trio of playoff contenders held off upset bids from archrivals to remain in the national championship race. And in Alabama, the Iron Bowl lived up to its billing as Auburn gave the mighty Crimson Tide all it could handle before fading late.

In the midst of the excitement, Penn State hosted tenth-ranked Michigan State in a game that served as little more than an afterthought for most outside observers. Michigan State entered as a double-digit favorite, but, with two losses, the Spartans were essentially eliminated from playoff contention and had no shot at winning the Big Ten title. Penn State entered as a team in turmoil. Their promising 4-0 September had given way to a 2-5 record since, including a loss the previous week to lowly Illinois. The Nittany Lions had clinched a bowl berth, their first in three seasons due to NCAA restrictions, but to most Penn State supporters, the season was a disappointment, and Saturday’s game would do little to change that.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Happy Valley. In my mind Penn State was a series of stereotypical images I’d seen on TV of a proud program marred in controversy: 106,000 diehard fans at the annual white out game juxtaposed with shots of press conferences and courtroom proceedings. To me, Penn State was the no-nonsense, working-man’s program of my childhood – the team that still played on a grass field and wore jerseys with no names on the back. But Penn State was also the newscast portrayal of a troubled program whose leaders had turned a blind eye to child sex abuse committed by one of its own. Penn State was the cover-up and the drama around the investigation – an investigation that eventually sent the offender, Jerry Sandusky, to prison and resulted in the termination of the school’s President, Athletic Director, and legendary coach, Joe Paterno.

Now, two and a half years removed from the Sandusky trial, the news trucks have moved on, and, to a large extent, so have the college football analysts. The announcement of the reduction in Penn State’s sanctions earlier this season barely made headlines outside of Pennsylvania. If I wanted to see the new epicenters for college football, I’d be better off elsewhere. But driving into State College on Saturday morning, I was excited to witness a bit of the real Penn State – to get a glimpse of something beyond the 30-second sound bites and TV broadcasts. Despite the team’s poor record and the likelihood of defeat to the Spartans, Saturday’s Senior Day offered the perfect setting for my exploration. For on Saturday, the final class of students and players who were on campus before the Sandusky trial bid a final farewell to their Penn State football experience.

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