Huskers remember the silence ... and a shared bond

2012-11-10T00:05:00Z 2014-08-11T14:48:17Z Huskers remember the silence ... and a shared bondBy BRIAN CHRISTOPHERSON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

They've heard a crowd's roar drown out the words of a someone standing just a foot away. They've had goose bumps as the ground vibrated after a game-sealing fourth-down stop at Memorial Stadium.

They've been in victorious locker rooms, where hoarse screaming seemed the only sensible thing to do.

Football is a loud game.

But ask a bunch of Huskers for the moment they might remember most when they're sitting on a rocking chair many years from now?

You're likely to hear about the day the noise went away, the day 108,000 people gave way to silence and a prayer.

"I'll remember that for the rest of my life," said Husker offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles.

Alonzo Whaley didn't know what to expect when Nebraska showed up to play Penn State a year ago. America had just learned of a monster who needn't be named here.

The monster's abuse of young boys left some feeling that the game shouldn't be played. Bo Pelini was among them.

"A shock to the system," Husker running backs coach Ron Brown said of that strange, sad week leading up to the game at State College, Pa.

"You're sitting there not knowing what you were going into," said Whaley, Nebraska's senior linebacker. "Not knowing if it'd be hostile. Not knowing if the fans would take it out on us because of what they're going through. Then you get there and it's literally as quiet as a church mouse in the stadium."

That's when the moment everyone remembers arrived. Players and coaches from both programs gathered at midfield, with a national television audience watching.

Foes knelt together, holding hands. Penn State interim coach Tom Bradley asked Pelini to kneel next to him.

Brown offered a prayer.

It was like nothing that could have ever been imagined when Nebraska first joined the Big Ten and it was announced Penn State would be NU's annual cross-division rival.

It immediately seemed destined to be a fierce rivalry between two programs that had some controversial battles both on the field and in the polls.

Instead, the schools' first game as members of the Big Ten came with a meeting in the middle of the field, a gesture that Brown believes created a mutual respect that still exists as the two schools prepare to meet again Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

Brown said there's not a team in the country he has more respect for right now than Penn State, which has managed to go 6-3 despite a coaching shakeup, players transferring and severe NCAA sanctions that leave the Nittany Lions without the chance to play in a bowl game for the next five years.

"I told my players, 'You know how many meetings they've had? How many talks they've had with one another, saying, 'We're going to stick together?'" Brown said. "Can you imagine the fiber and the spirit those people have? My hats off to Penn State."

* * *

The two teams have met 14 times — seven wins apiece.

Until last year, squabbles between the fan bases probably defined the rivalry as much as anything.

That September day in 1982 comes to mind. That was the day most Nebraskans will tell you the Penn State field grew three feet from its normal width.

Todd Blackledge threw a pass and Mike McCloskey made a catch — except, he really didn't. He admitted that while introducing Turner Gill at a speaking engagement at Boys Town 16 years later. His feet had landed out of bounds.

But there was no replay reviews 30 years ago. Officials called it a 15-yard catch and put the ball at the Nebraska 2-yard line. And so it was.

One play later, Penn State scored with four seconds left, on a pass to the back of the end zone to tight end Kurt Bowman. Husker players said he trapped it. Officials said he caught it.

The Nittany Lions won 27-24. They'd win the national championship that year. Nebraska finished third in the polls with a 12-1 record.

Twelve years later, a different tune. Nebraska and Penn State waged a poll battle throughout the fall. It really got interesting the final week of October. That's when the Huskers vaulted ahead of the Nittany Lions in the Associated Press poll after a 24-7 win against No. 2 Colorado.

Then a week later, Nebraska overtook PSU in the coaches' poll when Penn State's backups gave up a couple late scores to Indiana, including one as time expired. That made the score 35-29. The game was nothing like the score indicated, but Nebraska was a unanimous No. 1 after that weekend and didn't look back.

Penn State fans might tell you Nebraska garnered the sympathy vote that year to give Tom Osborne his first national championship. Husker fans might tell you their team was better.

But you get blank stares from current Huskers when you bring up those past Nebraska-Penn State debates.

When they think of the relationship between the programs, they think of last season.

"That was just us showing how much we appreciate Penn State, saying prayers to the families of what happened," said Husker defensive back Ciante Evans. "That's just us being Nebraska."

* * *

Nebraska received plenty of positive feedback for how it handled that difficult situation a year ago.

Some of it made its way to the Journal Star, with letters of gratitude from Penn State fans.

"I am a 73-year-old ex-Marine college football fan and Penn State graduate who has traveled the world, including a couple of PSU-Nebraska games," wrote J.R. Fleagle of Greensboro, N.C. "The classiest thing I have ever seen in sports was the Nebraska team, coaches and others joining their Penn State foes in prayer at midfield. It brought me to tears, and that is a rare event."

"The Cornhuskers won the game and much more Saturday," wrote Patrick McKenna of Clarks Green, Pa. "As the Penn State community tries to make amends and to move forward, we'll never forget the boost that Nebraska gave us on that road."

While it's never a bad thing to get some pats on the back, Pelini said this week it was never about that.

"Another Big Ten institution was going through a tough time and you want to rally around each other and be there. ... It wasn’t about how it made us look or anything else, in my opinion, but it was about doing the right thing."

As much as the schools bonded during that trying situation — there was no trash talking in Nebraska's 17-14 win, according to Sirles — everyone is expecting high intensity when the teams play Saturday.

"That rivalry is still going to be there," Sirles said. "It isn't just going to go away."

Nebraska is on a mission to earn a berth in the Rose Bowl. Penn State is on a mission to keep winning more games than anyone thought it would.

There might be some special handshakes before and after the game between players who will always remember that shared moment last year.

But everything in between?

"I want to go out there and kick their butt just like they want to kick ours, the way football should be played," Brown said. "But I promise you that you have two good teams not only with talent but great character."

Reach Brian Christopherson at bchristopherson@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. You can follow him on Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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