The Land Grant rivalry between Penn State and Michigan State is a joke.
In fairness, it’s a good joke. In its nearly 25 years, the game has given us a cult classic of a trophy that looks like a bowling league prize your buddy made for shop class in high school. Or the Shiva.
It’s given us a lot of laugh(er)s — 12 of the 21 meetings since Penn State joined the Big Ten have been decided by at least two touchdowns. And it’s given us some delicious pettiness — who can forget Spartans coach Mark Dantonio trolling Penn State fans by using his remaining timeouts at the end of a blowout that gave the Nittany Lions a share of the Big Ten title in 2008?
What it has not given us is an actual rivalry — Dantonio’s seemingly ever-present angst notwithstanding. The sparks have otherwise never flown between the couple since the Big Ten walked them to the altar with a shotgun in 1993 to give Penn State a partner for the league’s season-ending rivalry weekend.
Which is why it’s good news that, starting next season, Penn State will play regional foes Rutgers and Maryland in that slot. (Maryland gets the date in 2017 and ’18 while Rutgers rotates in for ’19.)
At the very least, this makes more sense on a logistical level.
For Penn State fans, it gives the large alumni bases in and around Philadelphia, New York, Washington and Baltimore short drives to a road game over the busy Thanksgiving travel weekend, something that was almost impossible when the Nits were schlepping up to East Lansing, Mich. (Or, briefly, Madison, Wis., when Penn State matched up with Wisconsin while the Spartans were in a different division.)
For the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights, it generates a little buzz that was tough to come by when they faced each other in their first three seasons as Big Ten members. And it’s likely to goose ticket sales, especially if the games are moved to bigger pro stadiums as Maryland chose to do when it hosted the Nits at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium in 2015. Many Penn State students heading to those areas anyway for the holiday will probably be happy to snap up some extra seats.
Beyond that, though, it is nice for Penn State to finally be in a season-ending matchup with regional stakes again. Older fans will remember that this is the spot where Penn State played ancient rival Pittsburgh for decades, until their respective decisions to join conferences ended the arrangement.
It’s hard to predict that Maryland or Rutgers will ever come close to mimicking the glory days of that rivalry with the Panthers, which in the 1970s and ’80s regularly featured national championship implications. The Terrapins and Knights have offered little resistance to Penn State historically and have dropped five of their combined six meetings with the Nits since they joined the Big Ten.
But the fact remains that these schools have tons of overlapping recruiting territory and go head-to-head for prospects a lot. Maryland, in particular, recruited well this year, with first-year coach D.J. Durkin winning pledges from eight players who also held Penn State offers, en route to compiling the No. 17 class nationally, according to Rivals.
That adds stakes that don’t exist to the same degree with Michigan State, which recruits more heavily in the Midwest than the Mid-Atlantic.
And who can’t appreciate a little unrequited hate? Remember when the Terrapins refused to shake hands when the schools met for the first time as Big Ten opponents in 2014?
Or what about the time a Rutgers fan blog had to beg students not to chant “f— Penn State” at every home game? Or when the university had to apologize for some tasteless shirts that showed up on the official Rutgers football Facebook page?
Perhaps those feelings aren’t exactly reciprocated in Happy Valley, but they add a dynamic that has never been there with Michigan State.
Penn State faces all three schools annually in the East division, so it’s possible many fans won’t notice the difference in shuffling the dates and won’t feel the new setup offers anything more than conveniences. That’s fine.
Regardless, it feels a lot more natural for the Nits to be facing a neighbor at the same time Ohio State is having its showdown with Michigan and Indiana is contesting the Old Oaken Bucket with Purdue.
And if we’re really lucky, maybe we’ll get another goofy trophy out of it.